US, Russian Army Chiefs stage Syria Face-off to Thwart a Trump-Putin Summit
While US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are both keen on a face-to-face meeting, their military chiefs are intent on knocking it down. On Monday, June 18, an unattributed report surfaced claiming that Vienna is “under consideration as the site of a potential summit between Trump and Putin.” It could take place, according to the report, ahead of a July 11-12 NATO summit in Brussels which Trump is expected to attend. He plans to stop over in London for talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May.
(See DEBKA Weekly 804 of June 8: A Trump-Putin Summit? A Date is up in the Air – Still…).
But military and defense leaders are using the Syrian arena to keep the two powers scrapping and the summit out of reach. On June 13, Defense Secretary Mike Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee, “At this time… I do not see any indication that Mr. Putin would want a positive relationship with us. That is to say, we can’t get there as we look for common ground.” He stressed, “But at this point, he has chosen to be competitive, a strategic competitor with us and we will have to deal with that as we see it.”
Echoing the defense secretary, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the US has an “adversarial relationship with Russia.”
This back-and-forth continued a day later. When Trump was asked by reporters in Singapore after his June 14 meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, “Are you planning to meet with Putin this summer?” He replied: “It’s possible that we’ll meet, yeah. I-I thought – you know, this all started because somebody, one of you, asked ‘Should Putin be in the G-7?’ I said: ‘No, he should be in the G-8.’” And Trump went on to say: “A few years ago, Putin was in what was called the G-8. I think it’s better to have Russia in than to have Russia out, because, just like North Korea, just like somebody else, it’s much better if we get along with them, than if we don’t, so it’s possible.”
According to DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has taken charge of the bid to bring the summit to fruition. He and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are playing ping pong in this effort. He is helped by a small, select team working in hush to repeat the coup they pulled off for the US president’s summit with the North Korean ruler. Leading team figures are national defense adviser John Bolton and CENTCOM chief Gen. Joseph Votel. Gen. Votel is a key player because (a) developments in the Syrian arena under his watch will, in the coming days, largely determine the summit’s fate, and (b) his contacts in the US military and defense circles opposed to the summit make him a useful go-between for Pompeo to turn them around.
On Thursday night, June 21, when DEBKA Weekly was ready for publication, both US and Russian forces in Syria were on the brink of a military showdown, either direct or through their proxies and allies, and the prospects of a summit were teetering.
The US contingents in Syria are fronted by local groups and allies, Israel’s IDF and the Jordanian army, whereas Russia’s commanders on the spot are using the Syrian army, Hizballah, Iran and its proxies in Syria and Iraq. Both the preparations for a summit and the military operations in Syria are clandestine and therefore hidden from public view. DEBKA Weekly’s military sources can reveal that their activities fall into three main groups:
- Gen. Shoigu has ordered Russian forces in Syria and the Black Sea to render the Syrian government army logistic and intelligence backup for its troop buildup along the borders with Israel and Jordan. These troops are poised ready for a major offensive to seize the border regions from Syrian opposition groups backed by the US, Israel and Jordan. These groups number around 20,000 combatants. This offensive, once launched in full, would derail Putin’s plans to gear his Syrian strategy towards promoting a summit with Trump.
Up until Wednesday, June 20, the Syrian offensive was still on ice in the absence of a direct order from Putin, say our military sources. But then, the Syrian army took its first steps forward by capturing two small rebel-held strategic locations – Busra Al-Harir in the Daraa region and Kfar Shams outside Quneitra. Assad appeared to be testing the Russian response to his autonomous move and see how Israel reacts. All such Syrian steps were hitherto subject to Putin’s veto or nod.
- On Saturday, June 16, an Israeli air strike destroyed Russian weapons systems in the service of the Syrian army, even though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had spoken on the phone with Putin the day before,
- That same night, Iran took its next move: the transfer of two brigades of the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which operate under the command of Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, from Iraq into Syria. The 45th and the 46th PMU brigades were composed mainly of the Iraqi Katai’b Hezbollah militia. This was the first time in the six years of Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict that Tehran has deployed a force as large as this in Syria. Had their crossing from Iraq to Syria continued after reaching a point east of Deir ez-Zour, Iran would have achieved its long-coveted goal of a land bridge from Iran to Syria via Iraq. However, between Sunday night June 17 and Monday morning, the Iraqi Shiite brigades came under heavy Israeli air bombardment, which destroyed the bulk of the force and caused many casualties.
Netanyahu had earlier discussed the operation with Pompeo and received the go-ahead. That Monday morning, Pompeo was on the phone to Lavrov in Moscow to discuss the way forward to an accommodation between the two powers for easing the military flareup between them in Syria. But he warned Lavrov that the summit between their bosses was contingent on a ceasefire being observed in the two de-escalation zones (on the Jordanian and Israeli borders) agreed between Trump and Putin at their Hamburg interview in July 2017.