It did not take long for Russian President Vladimir Putin to start putting to the test the provisional understandings on Syria that he reached secretly with US President elect Donald Trump in mid-November.
Those understandings, which came out of their first phone conversation on Nov, 14, were first disclosed by DEBKA Weekly 732 on Nov. 18, after incoming National Security Adviser Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and Russian Security Council head Nikolai Patrushev had thrashed out some of the details.
The framework was anchored in two points of assent: The Trump administration and Moscow would work together to defeat ISIS and other radical Islamist groups, including Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front – was one. The second was the Syrian army’s partial inclusion in this campaign, which was tantamount to accepting Bashar Assad’s survival in power.
The deal they reached was not completely sealed. Additional players in the Syrian arena needed to be taken into account. Therefore, requests went out to Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, asking them to adapt their policies and military operations to the new principles governing the Syrian stage.
To win their compliance, Iran was carefully excluded from the agreed framework.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources tracked this process as it unfolded:
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was required to curtail the advance of his army and the Turkish-backed Syrian Free Army towards the ISIS-controlled northern Syrian towns of Al-Bab and Raqqa.
- Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was asked to refrain from interfering with the Syrian army’s return to the South after rebel forces were driven out – in return for Russian guarantees to keep Iranian and Hizballah forces away from its borders and restore the UN observer force to the Syrian Golan.
- King Abdullah of Jordan was required to accept the same arrangement, as well as providing troops for an assault on the ISIS positions entrenched in the Syrian-Jordanian-Israeli border triangle.
- The Trump team asked Putin to put the Syrian army’s Aleppo operation on hold just short of their total rout of all the rebel forces.
All these elements were assembled into a cohesive framework designed to bring the Syrian conflict under some sort of rational control and prepare a combined force for a comprehensive assault on ISIS.
The scent of détente briefly permeated the air. But it quickly evaporated, when the Russians started playing fast and loose with the new understandings, taking steps back which the new American national security team and intelligence agencies interpreted as probes to test the new American president’s mettle and find out if he was as tough and decisive as he sounded.
DEBKA Weekly lists four of those steps:
- On Nov. 15, a meeting took place outside Aleppo between the Russian high command in Syria and senior Hizballah officers – thereby tightening Moscow’s military coordination with Tehran.
- On Nov. 29, after Putin promised to put the Aleppo operation on hold prior to victory – as per Trump’s request – a senior official of the “pro-Damascus alliance” declared the plan was “to drive the rebels out of Aleppo before Donald Trump takes office as the US president.”
So either Moscow failed to rein in Assad’s generals and allies, or, more likely, did not make the effort.
The uncharted rush of events in Aleppo provoked the Turkish president into declaring that his army had launched operations in Syria “to end the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.”
By cheating on his pact with Putin, the Turkish leader further frayed the framework of the Trump-Putin understanding.
- On Nov. 27, Putin took a critical step for expanding Russia’s military and naval footholds in Middle East conflicts, when he welcomed the Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hafita to Moscow. They agreed that Russian military assistance and air and naval support for his army would be paid for by permission for Russia to establish a new Mediterranean air and naval base at Benghazi – twin to the Russian air base at Hmeimim, Syria.
This unforeseen event taught the incoming US president’s security advisors that Putin had no intention of being constrained by understandings he reached with Trump on Syria from his drive to expand Russian influence beyond any single area.
- On Nov. 27, the deal that won Israeli over, with Jordanian and UAE endorsement, was bombed out by a sudden Russian aerial blitz against rebel strongholds in southern Syria, which was resumed without notice after a four-month interruption.
The fruitful process for restoring stability to the Syrian-Jordanian-Israel border region was cut short abruptly, when it transpired that Putin, after accomplishing the rebels’ defeat in Aleppo at the hands of the Syrian army and its allies, intended to replicate the exercise in the South.
Rather than lying down and waiting for this happen, Netanyahu on Nov. 30 sent the Israeli air force over Damascus to preemptively shoot it down.
Putin’s double-cross of the US president elect embarrassed him in the eyes of Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE as showing him to have subscribed to a leaky deal with Moscow. They are all now waiting to see how Trump handles this setback to his first venture into international relations.