A Trump-Putin deal on Syria?

According to David Ignatius of the Washington Post: “The catastrophic war in Syria is nearing what could be a diplomatic endgame, as the United States, Russia and Israel shape a deal that would preserve power for Syrian President Bashar al -Assad in exchange for Russian pledges to restrain Iranian influence.” Is this true? The words “is” and “could be” leave me unclear whether Ignatius is speculating or reporting what he thinks is a fact.

Nonetheless, Ignatius’ report is plausible. For President Trump, checking Iranian power in Syria is a priority. Regime change in Syria isn’t.

And this is certainly the case for our close ally Israel. The Israelis can’t tolerate an Iranian presence near its border. They want the freedom to attack encroaching Iranian forces. If Russia consents to such attacks, Israel will have that freedom.

But would the deal Ignatius describes serve U.S. interests? I agree that curbing Iranian power and influence in Syria should be our overriding interest at this point. It’s a worthy goal in itself and would carry the additional benefit of humiliating the Iranian regime at a time when it appears to be vulnerable at home.

But the deal Ignatius describes does more than just “preserve” Assad’s power. It would, if I understand Ignatius correctly, expand the power of Assad and Russia to areas of Syria not under Assad’s control, including northeastern Syria, where the U.S. partnered with Kurds to defeat ISIS.

The U.S. would thus abandon forces with whom we have collaborated, and would do so on behalf of Assad and Putin. There would be a fair amount of dishonor in that.

And what would we really get in return? Russia’s promise to curb Iran.

Can we trust Russia to do this? Netanyahu obviously does. But he would be getting a concrete promise that Russia will allow Israel to engage in “self-help” near its border with Syria. The U.S. would be getting something more vague and something requiring direct action by Russia.

Apart from the issue of trust, there’s also the question of whether Russia has the ability to curb Iran in Syria. Igantius reports:

European countries, which have been key covert allies in Syria, are deeply skeptical that the anti-Iran plan will work. “Britain and France have warned the U.S. that it’s highly improbable that Russia has the presence on the ground to get the Iranians to shift out” of areas they now dominate, a European diplomat told me.

The point seems well taken. Russia is a force in Syria primarily by virtue of its air power. But Russia isn’t likely to bomb Iran out of Syria, and the Israelis, as far as I can tell, will only bomb Iran out of a small part of that country.

At this juncture, there are no easy answers for the U.S. in Syria. That’s mainly the fault of former president Obama. Putin moved in only when it became clear that Obama wouldn’t act. If he had enforced a no-fly zone, Russia wouldn’t be calling the shots, Assad wouldn’t be riding high, the death toll would be much lower, and the refugee crisis would be far less acute.

But even taking into account the lack of easy answers, it’s doubtful that the one Trump supposedly contemplates is optimal. It seems to me that curbing Iran in Syria involves some level of continued U.S. presence. Relying on Russia probably won’t cut it.