Putin’s Dilemma over US-Israeli Operation against Iran in Syria. Can Syria-Ukraine Linkage Apply?

The talks on Thursday, Aug. 23 in Geneva between US National Security Adviser John Bolton and his Russian opposite number Nikolai Patrushev, were set up by Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at their Helsinki summit on July 16. Bolton told the ABC network on Aug. 19 that the two presidents had decided “to revive the idea of working groups that was set up by my predecessor H.R.McMaster… and I have spoken with Jim Mattis and Mike Pompeo about this and we’ve agreed that what we can do at the meeting on Thursday is to look at the broad range of issues that might be open for discussion between Washington and Moscow and try and plan it out in a systematic way.”

Bolton said he would then report to the president and colleagues and “we’ll see what comes out of the meeting and what the best way ahead is.”

The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s take on the meeting was less sanguine. He said they would discuss “a lot of issues and they are sensitive.” He said that bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow “continue to degrade, so there is a need to search for common ground.”

For DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources, Bolton’s most telling phrase was the wish to try and plan out the issues “in a systematic way,” because this is how the forthcoming US-Israeli operation against Iran in Syria is unfolding. (See a separate article.) Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his Al Qods Brigades, the external arm of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) have been chosen as key targets after careful calculation: Although widely considered the strong pillar of the ayatollahs’ regime in Tehran, the intelligence reaching Washington and Jerusalem attests to Soleimani and his cohorts to be standing at the forefront of the opposition to the policy led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani for renegotiating the 2015 nuclear accord with Washington.

On Tuesday, Aug. 21, Rouhani marked Iran’s National Military Industry Day with these words: “We should make ourselves ready to fight against the military powers who want to take over our territory and our resources. Why does the United States not attack us? Because of our power, because it knows the consequences.”

That Rouhani conspicuously avoided referring to US potential targets outside Iranian territory was noted by three Trump policymakers, John Bolton, James F. Jeffrey, the administration’s newly-appointed coordinator for Syria and Brian Hook, Senior Policy Adviser to the Secretary of State and Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff for Iran. (A separate article discusses the significance of the Jeffrey appointment.)

The three officials agree that the Russian President will apply his strategy of turning a blind eye to Israeli military action in Syria equally to US attacks – so long as Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime are not impaired.

The possible tradeoff being hatched between the two big powers would have the US and its allies, Israel and the Arab Gulf states, give up trying to undermine Assad and accept Russia’s domination of Syria, in exchange for Moscow encompassing Iran’s exit. This deal should make everyone happy except Iran – and some circles in the State Department and National Security Council. They are concerned that Putin’s turn-a-blind-eye policy for US and Israel military action is Syria may not be sustainable. He will be hassled by Tehran, Damascus, or possibly Ankara, to explain the logic of maintaining a Russian force in Syria when it never fires a shot to stop American and Israeli military operations there. The Russian president will then have to decide whether to stick to his guns or start hitting back at Israeli targets, while attempting to leave US targets unscathed. He is no doubt aware of the US-Israeli pact for covering the other’s back in air and ground actions, but a chink may be found in the most ironclad armor.

Will the Ukraine issue figure in the Russian leader’s calculations for Syria? Hanging over the Trump-Putin July summit were stubborn rumors that the Russian president would be ready to kick Iran out of Syria if Trump recognized Russia’s annexation of Crimea and guaranteed not to co-opt Ukraine and George to NATO. No part of that rumored deal came to be at Helsinki. But it never died. A suggestion still lingers over the secret exchanges ongoing between Washington and Moscow that Putin might eventually line up with the US and Israeli agenda in Syria, if he comes out of the deal for ridding Syria of Iran with Ukraine in hand.

Bolton may know more about this when he arrives in Kiev on Friday, Aug. 24, the day after he gets together in Geneva with his Russian opposite number. The US official arrives in time to watch a military parade in Independence Square of 4,500 servicemen and 250 pieces of equipment dedicated to the 27th anniversary of Ukraine’s nationhood.

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