We know little, if anything, about what happened at the formal between President Trump and Vladimir Putin after Trump told the autocrat-thug that he was honored to meet him. We know nothing about what transpired at the dinner in Hamburg after Trump sought out Putin for further discussion.
But now we know what Trump has done for Putin since they met in Germany. He has ended a CIA program in Syria to arm and train non-jihadist Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad, a mass murderer who is aligned not just with Russia, but with Iran and Hezbollah too.
Ending the program is a massive concession to Putin. I agree with the U.S. official who told the Washington Post, “this is a momentous decision” that means “Putin won in Syria.”
The administration says Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, and thus well before he met with Putin. If this is true, then one hopes that the great deal maker — who, from all that appears, has made no deal of much consequence in six months as president — got something substantial from Putin in return for ending the CIA program.
What did Trump get? We know he got a cease fire agreement with Russia in southwestern Syria, where many of the CIA-backed rebels have operated. Administration sources say this agreement was not tied to Trump’s abandonment of the program to train and arm rebels. I’m not so sure. In any case, who believes that a cease fire deal with Russia is likely to hold for one day longer than Russia determines is in Russian interests? I don’t.
U.S. officials say that Trump’s decision is part of a larger strategy of “negotiating limited cease fire deals with the Russians.” Trump himself has said:
We are working on the second cease-fire in a very rough part of Syria. If we get that and a few more, all of a sudden we are going to have no bullets being fired in Syria.
This claim, if asserted honestly, strikes me as shockingly naive. Only with the capitulation or destruction of anti-Assad forces will Trump’s vision of a bullet free Syria be accomplished.
To me, it looks like Trump has contracted out our Syria policy to Putin — sort of like President Obama did after failing to enforce the “red line,” only on a much larger scale. The Obama administration, feckless though it was, never abandoned its allies on the ground in Syria, and probably never would have without getting something more substantial in exchange than a bunch of “cease fire” deals.
I agree with Noah Rothman that collaborating with Russia is “a fool’s errand” and that “allowing Moscow to be the power broker in Syria. . .makes America and its allies less safe.” I agree with Rothman on this point too:
Moscow has made it a priority to execute airstrikes on American and British covert facilities in Syria, and Donald Trump has just rewarded those air strikes on U.S. targets. Trump has sacrificed the goodwill he garnered from Sunni-dominated Middle Eastern governments when he executed strikes on Assad’s assets and, as recently as June, the U.S. downed a Syrian warplane for attacking anti-ISIS rebels laying siege to the Islamic State capital of Raqqa. . . .
[Trump’s] concession to Russia is significant not just because it removes some pressure on Moscow’s vassal in Damascus. It sends a series of signals to the world’s bad actors, who will inevitably react.
To be more specific:
This move will only further embolden not just Russia and Syria but their mutual ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran. It will convince the region’s Sunni actors that the United States is not on their side—a matter of increasing urgency in Iraq. The insurgency in Syria is unlikely to end so long as regional fighters have a means of getting into the country. America will simply sacrifice its leverage over those groups.
And all of this for what?
To garner goodwill with the bloody regime in Damascus? To court Moscow or Tehran? There is nothing to gain from cozying up to these regimes that is not offset by the sacrifice of American national interests and moral authority associated with rapprochement.
For all of the Trump administration’s criticisms of Barack Obama’s policy with regard to those regimes, this decision suggests he’s willing to double down on Obama’s mistakes.
I would go further than Rothman. When it comes to Syria at least, Trump has gone further down the road to appeasing Russia than Obama ever did.