As US President Donald Trump finalizes plans to sit down with Russian leader Vladimir Putin next month, the administration remains split on how to salvage a multilateral cease-fire deal in Syria amid a major offensive threatening US allies.
The US side is divided on its strategy to eject Iran’s proxies from Syria and away from the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan, America’s primary remaining objective in the war-torn country.
US officials say Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s current thrust into the area, driven by barrel bombs, artillery and airstrikes, violates a year-old cease-fire deal inked between the United States, Russia and Jordan to cease the bloodshed in July 2017.
“This is once again an example of Russia violating arrangements it has entered into with no regard for civilian lives,” a State Department official told Al-Monitor, adding that the United States had “communicated our protests to parties on the ground, including the Russians.”
But even as diplomats insisted the United States planned to uphold the cease-fire, CNN reported on June 28 that Trump appears willing to cut a new deal with Putin on the de-escalation zone that would allow 2,200 US troops to get out of Syria promptly. The news highlights splits within the administration on how to provide a meaningful counterweight against Iran.
“There’s an element from the American side, a signal to the [Syrian] regime that if it’s not about Iran, it doesn’t matter so much,” said Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “What they’re trying to do is create a wedge between the Iranians and the Russians.”
Two sources with knowledge of the administration’s talks said the State Department’s Middle East team has signaled interest in a phased departure from the de-escalation policy that would allow Assad to retake rebel-held areas, while Russia denies sanctuary to Iran. The State Department did not respond to Al-Monitor’s request for comment on the matter.
Yet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hinted to Congress on June 28 that the United States might seek a more muscular policy that would not tolerate either Assad’s or Iran’s presence in Syria long term, underscoring a speech in May just days after the United States exited the Iran nuclear deal.
Another US source with knowledge of the situation told Al-Monitor that the United States viewed the State Department-negotiated cease-fire in Syria’s southwest as a “transitional” effort to strike a better deal with Assad.
The collapse of the zone in recent days has prompted a flood of more than 45,000 refugees toward Jordan and Israel, and an emergency visit to Washington by Israel Defense Forces chief Gadi Eizenkot this week. Israel and Syria have long maintained a deal to keep Iran about 30 miles away from the armistice line of the 1967 Six-Day War.
It remains unclear how the United States would seek to enforce violations of the de-escalation zone, especially after a WhatsApp message circulated to Syrian opposition figures from the US Embassy in Amman told the anti-Assad groups not to expect US support. Russia, meanwhile, has reportedly asked the United States to close the al-Tanf base used to train Syrian fighters near an Iranian supply route.
A series of State Department press releases threatening potential retaliation has had little impact on deterring the offensive. Military officials in turn have long sought to keep away from publicly addressing the cease-fire, upheld by the State Department, deflecting press questions about the arrangement last year.
Cut out of the loop on Trump’s decision to nix the Iran deal, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is traveling in China this week, and the United States has little military presence in the southwest after the commander-in-chief ordered a halt to a covert CIA training program in rebel-held areas last year.
“The last thing the US wants to do is back another opposition group,” said Luke Coffey, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “This will be a big concern for Israel and Jordan.”
Meanwhile, US allies in the region have gotten increasingly tied down in dealing with Iran and its proxies. In March, the Washington Post reported that President Trump had asked Saudi Arabia to contribute money and troops to the Syria fight. But Riyadh and the United Arab Emirates, two of the top buyers of US military equipment, have become bogged down in the conflict in Yemen that’s increasingly centered on battle for the Red Sea port of Hodeidah.
“They are much more preoccupied and focused on the challenge Iran poses in Yemen,” said Firas Maksad, a director at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank. “The sense that I have is that they’re happy to follow Washington’s lead.”
The issue of Syria wasn’t mentioned at national security adviser John Bolton’s press conference in Moscow after meeting Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. But in calls with Lavrov over the weekend, Pompeo “stressed” that both sides should maintain the cease-fire, the State Department official told Al-Monitor. Experts following the talks don’t expect Trump and Putin to dive headfirst into the complex negotiations that the United States once hoped would yield a political settlement to the war.
“I would look to something like the meeting with Kim Jong Un where they agree to general principles,” said Paul Saunders, a fellow at the Center for the National Interest. “I wouldn’t expect more than that.”