President Donald Trump has never let on about the political and strategic content of his two-hour long, one-on-one meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16, but there have been striking consequences in and around Syria. According to the short version, the US agreed to pull its troops out and hand Syria over to Russia.
The ripple effect is more complicated and continues to widen, as shown in DEBKA Weekly’s rundown of the most pertinent events:
- Moscow’s response to the tough sanctions the Trump administration clamped down on Iran on Tuesday, Aug.7 consisted of lofty advice, but no condemnation: “They may only reinforce Iran in its unwillingness to make any concessions in the Middle East. Sanctions can be really effective only if they are supported globally.” Russian experts added: “The US…has to do something to be up to its word and somehow divert public attention from the tussle around fictious fuss around alleged meddling in its elections.” There was no word of Russian support or sympathy for Iran.
- Israel’s strange acceptance of Russian, Syrian, Hizballah and Iranian Shiite proxies on its northern doorstep without firing a shot or bombing their headquarters nearby, although its leaders vowed never to accept anything less than their total expulsion from Syria.
- The assassination of Syria’s most important rocket scientist Aziz Asbar with a car bomb on Saturday, Aug. 4 – apparently by Israel’s Mossad spy agency. Asbar was working at the top-secret Sector 4 Syrian weapons development unit, on an arsenal of precision-guided missiles capable of pinpointing every Israeli city. The unit is being rehoused in a new underground factory to replace the one that Israel demolished last year.
It is worth noting that for three years Israel abjured targeted assassinations of its enemies. The last time was in Jan 2015, when Israeli planes attacked a Syrian military convoy near Quneitra, killing Jihad Mughniyeh, son of Hizballah’s late commander-in-chief Imad Mughniyeh, as well as Iranian general Mohammad Ali Allahdadi. This time, there were no Iranian targets.
- Groups of Hizballah fighters are leaving Syria and returning home to Lebanon, out of a total that ranged from 8,000 to 10,000 fighters, depending on the state of battle. Their withdrawal is going forward without a formal Hizballah announcement.
- Israel’s new, undeclared de-escalation policy on its northern front is mirrored by a slowdown in confronting Hamas violence in the Gaza Strip. Washington is quietly encouraging Israel to hold its horses in both sectors. President Trump needs Israeli support for a ceasefire with Hamas, in order to promote his Middle East peace plan, which is reoriented on the Gaza Strip away from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.
DEBKA Weekly cites Israeli and Egyptian sources as disclosing that this reorientation is the upshot of a Trump-Putin tradeoff at Helsinki. The two presidents agreed to assign Russia responsibility for security on the Syrian-Israeli border – without prejudicing its Syrian-based military capabilities against targets menacing its own national security – whereas the US would take charge of the Palestinian question, including the Gaza Strip crisis, and soon publish its hitherto secret Middle East peace plan. This plan is anchored on the Gaza Strip as the heartland of Palestinian statehood with outlets branching into Egypt’s northern Sinai and the ports of the Suez Canal.
- After meeting President Trump at the White House on June 25, Jordan’s King Abdullah and his wife dropped out of sight. For 40 days, no one Washington or even his closest advisers in Amman knew where he was. The king finally surfaced on Tuesday Aug. 7. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources reveal that the royal couple went into seclusion in a well-guarded luxury villa somewhere in the United States. There, he was briefed on some of Trump’s Middle East plans and their interface with Putin’s policies. He was told that the two Gulf crown princes, Abdullah bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE, and Egypt’s Abdul-Fatteh el-Sisi were in the loop of and approved of the US-Russian policy elements for the region. Abdullah shut himself away to evaluate what he heard and think things over before determining his own political plans.