Syria Tops Trump-Putin Agenda, But Iran Wrecks Hopes of an Agreed Solution

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin will certainly devote much of their first face to face on Friday, July 7, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, to discussing how they can work together in Syria. But a constructive agreement is in doubt, because Iran will get in the way of any deal that is not in its favor.
This was strikingly demonstrated on Wednesday, when the Iranians derailed the Astana Syrian peace conference over the deconfliction zone plan, two days before it was to have been the core of a putative Russian-American understanding in Hamburg.
It is ironical that, unlike on the North Korea nuclear dilemma (see separate article), the White House, the NSC, the State Department and the Pentagon were all pulling together for once on the Syrian issue. They all agreed that America’s best path was to get together with Moscow on the deconfliction zones, which in turn would become the mainsprings of an accord for dividing Syria into Russian and US spheres of influence.
This task could be devolved on the US commander in Syria, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, and commander of Russian troops in Syria, Col. Gen. Sergey Surovikin.
A general outline already exists. The secret deal reached by Barack Obama and Putin in September 2015 more or less governed the ebb and flow of the military movements conducted by the two powers’ and their allies and sponsored forces in the past two years. American forces usually kept to areas east of the Euphrates River and the Russians to the west.
Some adjustments were made to this line in discussions between US and Russian officers in May and June, in keeping with the fluctuations of the battle scene in the interim – but primarily to accommodate a proposed deconfliction zone in eastern Syria. There, a new demarcation line was laid out running 128 kilometers from Lake-Assad Tabqa in the north down to Karame on the southern shore of the lake.
The entire plan depends on Moscow and Washington bringing their allies aboard. But here came the rub.
Whereas the American commanders have no problem with the Syrian rebel forces they sponsor, most prominently the US- trained Syrian Democratic Forces dominated by Kurdish YPG fighters, Moscow seemed to have no levers for bringing its allies in line.
Those allies, the Syria army, Hizballah and the Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias – fighting under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Al Qods chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani – have no intention of playing ball with Moscow, so long as they are not directed to do so by their overlords in Damascus and Tehran.
By Wednesday, two days before the Trump-Putin summit, those overlords were digging their heels in hard. Although co-sponsors with Russia of the Astana peace forum, Iran and Turkey were ready to derail the fifth round of Syrian peace talks in the Kazakh capital and bury the deconfliction zone plan for the sake of aborting a key American demand.
The US Undersecretary of State for the Near East, Stuart Jones, proposed deploying American troops in the deconfliction zones to be established in southeastern Syria along the borders with Israel and Jordan. All three Astana sponsors rejected this plan out of hand. And Russia, to defuse the heated discussion, proposed holding it over for the next session, but also announced it would take place next week in… Tehran.
By this ploy, the Astana sponsors made sure the United States would no longer have a voice.
The American proposal was aimed at preventing an Iranian-Hizballah grab for the Israeli and Jordanian borders. The US and Jordanian delegates had no problem with the three Astana sponsors deploying their armed troops in the other proposed deconfliction zones, but were concerned to keep them as far as possible from the sensitive southern border regions.
By relocating the next session of the Astana peace track to Tehran, Moscow betrayed its ulterior two-faced policy of pretending to be constructive, while going along with Iran’s military motivations in Syria. This confirmed longstanding suspicions in some US Jordanian and Israeli intelligence circles.
Moscow gave its real game away last month by allowing pro-Iranian forces free rein to seize at least three sections of the Syrian-Iraqi border, although they are located in an area which the Russian-US agreement had assigned to US control
The US force was originally posted to the southern section of that key border – around 4,500 in number – for two missions:
1. To fight – or support combat against – the Islamic State;
2. To block Iran’s drive for opening up a direct land corridor between Iraq and Syria for the ferrying of pro-Iranian reinforcements and heavy weapons into Syria.
The second mission was trampled on in mid-June when the Iran-sponsored Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) was allowed to breach the border to the north of the American garrison. Neither Russian nor American interfered to stop them (as DEBKA Weekly reported two weeks ago).
And Monday, July 3, the PMU’s deputy commander, Mahdi al-Muhandis, crowed that his forces “would never be dismantled” – even if this was decided by Baghdad, or after the Iraqi city of Mosul was liberated from ISIS.
The Iraqi PMU commander was boasting that he took his orders from Tehran, not his own government.
He was flushed with the success of his mission to open up the corridor from Iraq to Syria so desired by his masters, without the Americans or the Russians lifting a finger to stop him.
Some Pentagon circles around Defense Secretary James Mattis are making little of the Iranian breakthrough, maintaining that it had to be accepted a fact, because the only thing that matters to the United States in Syria is the fight against the Islamic State – nothing else.
The Assad regime’s army, the pro-Iranian Hizballah and other militias, are dancing around and isolating the American force and seizing terrain as soon as it is captured from the jihadists. Yet these developments seem to be non-factors in Washington’s preparations for President Trump’s pivotal encounter with Putin.
The Russian leader, like Tehran and Damascus, will no doubt make hay from this display of American weakness and Trump’s personal vulnerability at home. His hands may be tied in dealing with Moscow by having to fight off the constant hail of unproven allegations by his political foes of former inappropriate associations with Moscow.

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