The Trump-Putin Syrian Deal that Never Was Nearly Started a War
If indeed Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin did come to some agreement on the future of Syria last weekend in Vietnam, it was the shortest-lived superpower accord ever. This episode is a quintessential example of how a high-powered international event was falsely reported – not once, but twice.
On Saturday, Nov. 11, the two presidents met informally and briefly on the sidelines of the Asian regional economic summit in Vietnam. Yet both American and Russian spokesmen announced they had agreed on a joint statement for the conflict in Syria. It reaffirmed the leaders’ commitment to defeat ISIS in the country, stressed the need “to keep existing military communications open and agreed that the bloody conflict does not have a military solution.”
The two presidents were also quoted as having “confirmed their determination to defeat ISIS in Syria.”
Later, Trump said he felt he had a “good meeting with President Putin.”
A State Department official then told reporters: “What the joint statement indicates is a commitment to get this to a political reconciliation and peace process. That serves their interest, it serves our interest,” the US official said. Asked if Russia has enough influence to bring Bashar Assad to the table, he said: “We’re going to be testing that, we’re going to find out.”
Three days later, those “statements” were found out indeed to be empty talk to cover up the real situation. Not only had Trump and Putin failed to get together for a meaningful conversation at the Vietnam conference, but the US and Russian teams, tasked with hammering out a memorandum of understanding for the two presidents to announce after their putative meaningful get-together, had not come up with the goods. The gaps between them were too wide for an understanding to be reached.
Those gaps were soon floating to the surface.
On Tuesday, Nov. 14, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis remarked caustically: “You need to do something about this mess now, not just fighting the military part of it and then say good luck on the rest. We are going to make sure we set the conditions for a diplomatic solution,” he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was slightly more diplomatic but his meaning was unmistakable: “The United States believes that the right direction for Syria is regime change, as you know. Despite not demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad resign immediately, their claims contradict the Geneva agreements.”
He went on to deny the many reports claiming that an agreement on the terms of “a ceasefire in Syria” included a Russian commitment to remove Iran-backed militias from the country, and asserted Iran’s presence in Syria was “legitimate.”.
Another Russian high-up Defense Minister Gen. Sergey Shoigu blamed the US Air Force for impeding Russian airstrikes against ISIS in the Abu Kamal battle. Clearly, the two powers are not of one mind even on the separation of their forces and those of their allies in the war on ISIS.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that the only area of understanding that the two presidents did approve was the expansion of the “de-escalation zones” set up after their July 7 Hamburg summit. Since then, more and more of those zones have sprung up across Syria and are in different stages of ceasefire and repopulation. Hence Lavrov’s reference to a ceasefire and non-reference to a non-existent wider understanding.
But before the false picture of a US-Russian accord on Syria was cooked up in Vietnam, fake seeds were planted earlier by British media ahead of the event.
On Nov.10, the BBC ran a long and detailed news story, supported by satellite photos, showing construction activity in recent months of a dozen large low-rise buildings, apparently for housing soldiers and vehicles, at a site about 50km from the Israeli Golan. The site at El-Kiswah, 14km from Damascus, previously served as a Syrian army camp. The BBC presumed it was being prepared as an Iranian base – although it admitted that no Iranian troops were in occupancy – but from visits to the site by high-ranking Iranian officers in recent weeks.
The British report repeatedly quoted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as saying that “Iran wants to establish itself militarily in Syria, right next to Israel. Israel will not let that happen.”
The BBC story was not confirmed by any other source. And this is not surprising. An investigation by DEBKA Weekly found no sign of an Iranian base going up at El-Kiswah, but did establish that the Iranian command center in southern Syria is located at Izra, 80km south of Damascus. It is situated in the northern part of Daraa Province, on the M5 highway linking Daraa and Damascus, and 25km from Israel’s Golan border.
The BBC “disclosure” – almost certainly released on a nod from a British government or intelligence quarter – set the scene for a stream of more “revelations” by British media.
One uncovered a “clause” in the “understanding” reached by the two presidents covering two “de-escalation zones” in the Daraa and Qunetra districts of southern Lebanon, respectively on the Jordanian and Israeli borders. It was claimed that this clause determined that Iran, the Shiite militias under Revolutionary Guards command and Hizballah had agreed to withdraw to a distance of 20 kilometers.
Another report went further and asserted that President Trump had agreed to this clause, in return for a vague Russian promise to act at an undetermined date in the future to remove Iranian and Hizballah forces from Syria.
That hare was emphatically shot down Tuesday by Lavrov.
Netanyahu, deeply concerned by these reports from highly reputable media, responded:: “I have made it clear to our friends in Washington and Moscow that Israel will act in Syria and southern Syria as it sees fit and in accordance with our security needs.”
He said. “We guard our borders, our country and will continue to do so.”
Two days earlier, he dispatched IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkot to Brussels in an attempt to find out from US Gen. Curtiss Scaparotti, head of the US army’s European Command, what Washington had agreed – and not agreed – to with Moscow with regard to IDF operations in the Syrian border region.
The American general said he was mystified by Gen. Eisenkott’s question and denied any knowledge of understandings reached between the two presidents with regard to the Syrian-Israeli border issue
Still burning over the twenty-kilometer “revelation,” Israel on Saturday Nov. 11 downed a Hizballah drone heading from Syria west towards the Israeli Golan. The Patriot intercepted the UAV as it crossed the 20-km line as a message to Trump and Putin that Israel rejected their purported understanding.
By then, temperatures were rising over Israel’s northern border with Syria. It had therefore become vital to clear the fog of fake news with some clarity. And indeed, on Saturday night, the White House, in an urgent phone conversation with Netanyahu, flatly denied the entire welter of reports as unfounded.
Up until now, neither the Trump administration nor the Netanyahu government understands who – and for what reason – an unknown party pumped a stream of false reports to international media, which might well have triggered an outbreak of armed hostilities, with Israel ranged on one side and Syria and Hizballah on the other. US and Israeli intelligence agencies are no doubt digging hard to find the source of these dangerous red herrings.