Here’s the live feed for the President’s news conference with Putin at the end of their Helsinki summit.
I’ve been away from the news most of the morning and am just now getting caught up. I think the real concern with the Helsinki meetings, as was the case with the Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un, is that we will only find out what the President said or agreed to in the one on one when either he tells us or when Putin does. An immediate worry has to do with US operations in Syria. As Josh Marshall highlighted yesterday, The Jerusalem Post, which builds on Adam Entous’s reporting in The New Yorker, has reported that the Israelis working with the Saudis and the Emiratis have been pushing the President to strike a grand bargain regarding Syria. Specifically that the US will withdraw from Syria, which the President has wanted to do for months, freeing up Russia and their local proxy Assad to control Syria and crush the rebels. The cost would be that Putin must push Iran, which is Assad’s other patron, out of Syria. In March the President froze all humanitarian aid to Syria and in the past month the US Special Forces that had been conducted an advise and assist mission with the Syrian rebels in Daraa have been pulled out. This is why Assad, with Putin’s backing, felt comfortable attacking the rebel strongholds in and around Daraa. This left not just the rebels, but the people in the region at Assad’s tender mercies.
The reason that this deal would be terrible is that the US led coalition has not defeated ISIS in Syria or Iraq. What has happened, is that free of having to function as both a military and political/social organization because of the loss of the physical caliphate, ISIS has been able to focus on the terrorist attacks that were its hallmark prior to trying to build an actual state. And because ISIS hasn’t been defeated, should the US pull out of Syria it leaves those in Syria seeking to remove the dictatorial Assad from power with only two choices: capitulate to Assad’s government or support ISIS. If the US stops its unconventional warfare strategy, a strategy of working by, with, and through our Syrian Arab and Kurdish partners on a train, advise, and assist mission, it removes the viable alternatives to Assad or ISIS. Moreover, a premature end to the US operations in Syria would once again be a betrayal of our Kurdish allies in the region, which will further cement the belief that the US cannot be counted on to finish what it either starts or encourages others to start with the promise of support. Finally, Putin doesn’t have a tremendous amount of leverage over Iran. If anyone thinks that Putin can, let alone would, push Iran out of Syria is delusional. Iran has far more personnel in Iran than Russia does. Iran is fighting in its own region, where it seeks to be the regional hegemon. And it has the best strategist within the region on the battlefield in Syria coordinating efforts, which is why things started turning around in Syria’s favor back in 2013. Prematurely ending the unconventional warfare strategy in Syria by removing US Special Forces and stopping their train, advise, and assist mission would be strategic malpractice. It will only serve to strengthen both Assad and ISIS, which will make things worse for actual Syrians. And despite the inane assessment of Benjamin Netanyahi, Muhammed bin Salman, and Muhammed bin Zayed, it is highly unlikely to get Iran out of Syria and contained within Iran’s borders.