It was important that President Donald Trump open his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin by raising the point of Russian meddling in American elections. It was equally important that he accepted Mr. Putin’s response. Russia — whether as the USSR or the Russian Federation — has spent decades trying to undermine American confidence in its system of economics and government, including confidence in its elections. As a national insurance carrier says, “It’s what they do.”
Most Americans know that and worry more about the integrity of voter rolls than about what the Russians want us to think. Which is wise, because the next part of the Trump-Putin conversation was more important precisely because it was ahistorical.
The U.S.-Russian joint announcement of a cease-fire for the southwest corner of Syria seriously affects Jordan and Israel, both of whom had been increasingly concerned about Iranian and Hezbollah activity in the area. The U.S., Jordan and Russia have been discussing the parameters of the agreement for some time now, with Israel — not in the room — weighing in with all three.
Late last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister of Russia, that Iran must be prevented from establishing bases in Syria, and that Hezbollah must not be permitted to acquire heavy weapons, according to The Jerusalem Post. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Oleg Syromolotov, told The Post last week that Iran and Hezbollah “along with all armed groups” will leave Syria when the war is over.
So far, so good. Now comes the hard part and the long-term implications.
First, can Mr. Putin “make” the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbollah accept the conditions? While the Syrian government appears to have accepted the current ceasefire, Bashar Assad is a notably recalcitrant ally and, should Mr. Assad believe the Iranians are more important to him than the Russians, he may decide that fomenting more violence in the south works better for him than accepting less.
Other ceasefires have been broken when the Syrian government believed its interests were not sufficiently protected. Most recently, the chemical attack on Kahn Sheikhoun occurred, oddly, just after the U.S. announced it would not seek regime change in Damascus. The Russians appeared to take that as a sign that it could proceed with peace talks in Khazakstan, but the Syrian government objected to the makeup of the opposition parties — and objects to the “sponsors” of the conference being Russia, Iran and Turkey, not Syria.
Iran is a separate, and perhaps independent, matter. For Iran, a military position in Syria is essential to the establishment of the Shiite Crescent, the real reason Iran is fighting in Syria. (You thought it was sympathy for the Alawites? The mullahs generally consider them to be heretic Shiites.) Russia may be looking for a way out of the Syrian mess, but Iran has plans for long-term residence.
Iran and Hezbollah were not part of the ceasefire agreement, and U.S.-Russian agreement, coupled with the Russian statement that Iran has to leave, may be the early stage of a Russian-Iranian rift. Theirs is an alliance solely of convenience. Russian and Iranian history has much more warfare in it than friendship. Although Mr. Putin surely prefers Shiite Muslims to the radicalized Sunni Muslims that populate southern Russia, no Muslim-Russian alliance warms his heart.
And what about the American position?
The U.S. is more involved militarily in that area than, perhaps, Americans understand. American and British-sponsored Syrian rebels have been training in northern Jordan and operate over the border. American and British Special Forces operate there as well in support. The Syrians are not unaware of this. After the seventh annual U.S.-led Eager Lion military exercises, which took place May in Jordan involving 20 countries, Damascus claimed the U.S. and Jordan were invading Syria. They were not, but keeping that area free of Iran and Hezbollah is a key American — as well as Jordanian and Israeli — interest.
This is the crucial point — the U.S. has eschewed a role in the Syrian civil war from the beginning, sticking to the assertion that it was only interested in ousting ISIS from there and from Iraq. However, that was before Iran’s military presence across both countries and into Lebanon, created a Shiite corridor north of American allies Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Couple that with increased and aggressive Iranian operations in the waters to the east, south and west of those same three allies (the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden, and the Bab el Mandeb Straits and Red Sea) and the U.S. may be forced to view Iran expansionism as unacceptable.
It is possible, though not yet likely, that 40 years after the Islamic Republic of Iran declared war on the United States and Israel, the U.S. may find itself fighting back. Whether Russia would take Iran’s side over America’s is the open and most important question, far outweighing its unsuccessful meddling in American domestic affairs.
• Shoshana Bryen is senior director of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish Policy Center
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