Middle East Ticker

No Grand Bargain for Syria at Trump-Putin Summit

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, July 17, 2018, 10:00 AM

Trump and Putin Say They Will Cooperate on Syria, But No Grand Bargain

The Trump administration has signaled in recent weeks that it would like to reach a grand bargain with Russian President Vladimir Putin that splits the Iranian-Russian alliance in Syria and forces Iranian troops from the country. But the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki yesterday appears to have made little progress on Syria. In their remarks afterward, President Trump and and President Putin said that they hoped to deepen their cooperation in efforts to end the Syrian civil war and stressed that they were both working to restore security in the Golan Heights in line with Israel’s interests. But no agreement was reached, and while Trump emphasized U.S. concerns about Iran’s presence in Syria, Putin cited the importance of the Astana peace talks coordinated by Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Putin said that there would be a follow-up meeting between the U.S. and Russian national-security staff, but no formal agreement appears forthcoming.

The possibility of a grand bargain has been discussed for years¾and often been derided as overly optimistic. One key question that has not been sufficiently answered is what would be in it for Russia. Some reports have suggested that the United States would accept Assad’s continued rule if Russia can secure an Iranian withdrawal, but with the United States limiting its role in Syria to the country’s east, cutting off support to rebel groups, and looking to withdraw completely, that’s already de facto the case. Russia would likely require something else to sweeten the deal, and foreign countries that support a deal that would roll back Iran know it. The New Yorker reported last week that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have been suggesting since November 2016 that the United States also offer to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and lift the sanctions issued in response in exchange for a Syria deal. Recognizing the annexation of Crimea while Russian-backed separatists are still fighting in Eastern Ukraine would be a huge concession for the United States, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to the countries pushing the plan—Ukraine is a long way away and doesn’t have anything to do with their top priority, constraining Iran. At their press conference yesterday, Putin said that Trump maintained the U.S. position that the annexation of Crimea was illegal.

Even if such a grand bargain could be struck, it is unclear whether Russia has the ability to split Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from his Iranian patrons. After meeting with Putin in Moscow last week, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said that Iranian troops would leave Syria if Assad were to request it—but Assad is unlikely to do so. And Iranian troops are only one part of the issue. An Iranian withdrawal would still leave behind a network of proxy militias molded and supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps over the past seven years that would allow Tehran to continue to project power deep into the Levant.

The reporting regarding the Trump administration’s potential gambit to split Iran and Russia does not appear to have sparked any tensions between the allies. Rather, Velayati left Moscow praising the relationship, especially the $50 billion Russia is planning to invest in Iran’s energy sector. An additional oil-for-goods program may also be in the works. Russia is stepping in as many European countries, wary of renewed U.S. sanctions, have stepped back. Velayati told reporters that he warned Putin that the United States is “trying to split our alliance,” and that the Trump administration would move the goalposts on any deal. "I told the Russian officials: Now the Americans are telling you that the Iranians must leave Syria, and tomorrow they will ask you what you are doing in Syria," he said.

Iran on Diplomatic Offensive to Maintain Oil Exports and Offset Sanctions

Russia’s investment in Iran’s energy sector is a convenient boost as Tehran tries to navigate the fallout from the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. President Hassan Rouhani traveled to Europe earlier this month to meet with diplomats from countries still in the nuclear agreement try to negotiate better terms that would compensate for the reimposition of U.S. sanctions; though talks will continue, initial meetings in Vienna came up short. Iran has reportedly demanded Germany make up for the damage from the U.S. withdrawal with a payment of 300 million Euros, though German officials have warned that they cannot offset the U.S. sanctions entirely. “We will not be able to compensate for everything that arises from companies pulling out of Iran,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on July 6. Iranian officials have also threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, which would disrupt oil shipments and risk confrontation with the U.S. Navy and its Gulf partners. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, told state media, “We will make the enemy understand that either everyone can use the Strait of Hormuz or no one”—prompting a response from U.S. Central Command that it would “ensure the freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce.”

With its diplomacy in Europe stalled, Iran is looking to keep pumping as much oil as it can, even as the United States pressures countries to cut back their imports. Despite Washington’s efforts, the Iranian Oil Ministry reports that its exports last month did not decline significantly from output in April and May. However, some officials are concerned that exports could be more than halved by the end of the year. The situation will largely be determined by whether large importers in South and East Asia continue to buy Iranian oil. “If China . . . buys Iran’s oil, we can resist the US,” one anonymous Iranian economic analyst told the Financial Times. Trump’s ongoing trade war with Beijing may play into Iran’s hands by making China not just disinclined to help Washington, but eager to undermine Trump’s plan.

As Suzanne Maloney wrote recently, “Washington has abandoned the fig leaf of diplomacy proffered by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ... on the heels of President Trump’s decision to jettison U.S. adherence to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Instead, the White House is embarking on an economic offensive intended to collapse the Iranian government, which is already contending with a steady tempo of internal unrest driven by economic and political frustrations.” Rouhani is trying to stave off more protests, which have bubbled up across the country in response to economic and environmental issues. The regime does not appear to be on the verge of collapse, but he might be, and his hardline opponents are reportedly considering ways to unseat him.

At the NATO summit last week, Trump remarked on the protests in Iran and Rouhani’s diplomatic scramble to offset U.S. sanctions and maintain oil exports. "I know they're having a lot of problems and their economy is collapsing," he said. "At a certain point they're going to call me. They're going to say, 'Let's make a deal.' They're feeling a lot of pain right now." Trump also claimed that Iran is treating the United States "with much more respect right now than they did in the past,” a statement that is difficult to square with Iran’s Persian Gulf threat.

New Protests in Iraq against Economic Conditions, Water Provision

Fresh from a contested election, which is still subject to a partial recount, Iraq is experiencing new protests against economic conditions and poor service provision. In the country’s south—and particularly in Basra, an economic hub and the locus of Iraq’s lucrative oil exports—protesters have shut down critical highways and attacked political party offices to express their anger at corruption, unemployment, water access, and faulty electricity infrastructure. “Why should young men from Basra beg for jobs while oil companies are hiring foreign workers?” Falih al-Darraji, a protest organizer, asked Reuters. “We want jobs, we want to drink clean water, and electricity,” another protester said. “We want to be treated like human beings and not animals.”

The protests have deliberately targeted oil facilities and highways with commercial traffic to and from the Basra port. Approximately 95 percent of the Iraqi government’s revenue comes from oil exports that leave Iraq via Basra. Officials say the protests have not significantly disrupted trade so far, but two border crossings with Iran and Kuwait were shut on Sunday and airlines cancelled flights to the country’s second busiest airport in Najaf.

Southern Iraq’s economic straits have been exacerbated by a drought and shrinking rivers that are being dammed upstream. Iraqis have been compelled to dig expensive wells to chase the declining water table and contend with restrictions on irrigation for agriculture. The protests in Basra follow recent unrest across the border in the Iranian city of Khorramshahr, where, as in Basra, residents say the drought has made tap water silty and unsafe.

The current protests are the culmination of months of simmering anger and smaller demonstrations. The Middle East Institute’s Joshua Levkowitz wrote in May that local authorities reported “20 clashes over water scarcity in recent months.” The effects have extended well beyond the Iraqi south. Levkowitz also notes that the Islamic State wove the drought into a narrative of Sunni grievance in Anbar Province, telling potential recruits that it was part of a Shia plot to drive them from their land.

The current round of protests began on July 7 when residents of an agricultural district traveled approximately 60 miles to demonstrate on a highway north of Basra, near a large oil development. Police opened fire to disperse the crowd, killing one and wounding several others. More protests followed, including confrontations with police and efforts by the protesters to enter oil facilities. Over the weekend, demonstrations spread north. One group of protesters stormed a government building in Karbala, and others rallied in Najaf and Baghdad’s Sadr City. Unlike much of the political unrest in Iraq that has been concentrated in Sunni communities that feel disenfranchised by the country’s Shia majority, the recent protests are occurring in the country’s Shia strongholds.

Prime Minister Abadi has convened an emergency ministerial committee and authorized immediate spending on public services, including water. Members of the committee said they would develop plans to increase employment in areas around large oil installations.