Tariq Niaz Bhatti
HELSINKI, capital of Finland, hosted first formal meeting between US President Trump and Russian President Putin on July 16, 2018. The meeting of two most powerful heads of states drew global focus in the wake of brewing crisis in Syria and prospects of its resolution. President Putin had lot to gain from this important summit. Russia wanted the old glory of an equal standing with US and the optics of meeting at a neutral venue was near perfect towards that end. President Putin had a mix bag of grievances as well as expectations from the summit meeting. His wish list included stopping NATO open door policy, reducing US troops presence in the Western Europe, reducing US presence in the Baltics, cutting off US support to Ukraine, recognising Crimea and eliminating western economic sanctions against Russia. Moreover, Russia wanted US not to exert its influence in Western Europe, Baltics and Central Asia.
Before this one on one meeting with Trump, President Putin met Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Iranian special envoy to know their firsthand views on the evolving situation in Syria and their respective positions for resolving the crisis. Israel wanted an early withdrawal of Iranian forces in return for Israeli support to the Syrian government forces operations in Southern Syria and Bashar al Asad stay in power in Damascus. Whereas Iran showed no intention of calling back its military advisors from Syria immediately. Apparently, there seems no commonality in Israeli and Iranian positions which leaves Russia with no option but to continue the dialogue process. Here Helsinki provide a chance to both US and Russia to join hands and impress their allies for softening of respective stances.
In Middle East, Syrian civil war had attracted many outsiders, chief amongst these are Israel and Iran with US and Russia as backers. Syrian crisis which started as street protests in the wake of Arab Spring in 2011, has now blown into a full-fledged civil war with regional and international actors actively playing their part to achieve respective ends. Amongst regional actors’ majority Shia governments of Iran and Iraq and Lebanon based Hezbollah militia support Asad regime while Sunni majority countries like Turkey, Qatar and KSA support anti Asad rebel groups. US backed collation forces entered the fray in 2016 and have been arming anti Asad rebel groups in their fight against ISIS and Syrian government forces. Russia which has a sizeable military presence in Syria entered the war in 2015 and is a staunch backer of Asad regime. Under the prevailing circumstance any agreement between US and Russia on Syrian crisis is being tipped as harbinger of peace in the entire region. Russian position has remained consistent since 2011 as it had opposed regime change in Damascus being unsuitable and damaging for its internal political and economic stability. Russia view Syrian regime survival as the only way to preserve the Syrian statehood. On the other hand, US is wary of Iranian involvement in the Syrian affair. To contain the Iranian interventionism, US reliance has remained on both Israel and KSA with ad hoc reliance on Syrian Kurds to attain its objectives of Iran containment and directly ensuring security of state of Israel.
On July 16, summit meeting was held in Helsinki and included a one on one session between two heads of state and a group level meeting between cabinet ministers. As anticipated no major agreement between the two heads of the state could be signed but the joint press conference indicated discussion on range of bilateral and international issues including Syria. Prominent issues which were raised during the discussions were arms control (START), Syria, Ukraine, US sanctions against Russia and Russia’s alleged interference in the US elections. Arms control had been a bone of contention between the two countries and President Putin support for a revamped (START) treaty and addressing difference over intermediate range nuclear force treaty were a positive outcome of the parleys. On Syria, President Trump referenced to have been working with the Israeli PM Netanyahu. This indicated US all out support to the Israeli stance. President Putin agreed with Iranian assertions on the issue which seeks no immediate withdrawal of Iranian military advisors from Syria. These differing stances of parties involved prevented any meaningful progress on the Syrian issue at the Helsinki summit. The Summit meeting at Helsinki is a good beginning between two super powers towards addressing bilateral as well as international issues of concern. The Summit has helped in clarifying respective positions of the two powers on matters concerning the world peace and is expected to facilitate negotiated settlement of regional issues. Like Singapore summit meeting, the dialogue process initiated at Helsinki need to be taken forward in the best interest of global peace and security.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.