DEBKAfile, May 2, 2017:
One of the most consequential exchanges on the disposition of Syria’s border lands with Israel and Jordan – and the future of the Syrian conflict at large – took place between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in a phone call on Tuesday, May 2. The call took place when German Chancellor Angela Merkel was visiting Putin at his Black Sea residence in Sochi.
DEBKAfile’s military and intelligence sources reveal that the two presidents focused strongly on an effort to agree on how de-escalate the Syrian conflict now in its sixth year and bring it to an end. The Russian leader proposed drawing armistice lines between the warring sides under the guarantee of a special Russian military mechanism. The Americans have not released any ideas, but they are believed to be contemplating establishing safety zones barred to the Syrian air force. One of those zones would be marked out in the south on Syria’s borders with Israel and Jordan.
The Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, the Iranian military-political command and Hizballah are resisting US feelers for the introduction of these safe zones, regarding the plan as a ploy hatched by the Saudis, Israelis and Jordanians to take control of South Syria by engaging local Syrian rebel groups as their vehicle. Damascus, Tehran and Beirut believe that if they allow the scheme to go forward without resistance, it will be the start of similar off-limits enclaves in other parts of Syria, and the country will quickly fall apart into self-ruling segments.
That is why late last month, Syrian army units, the Shiite militias under Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers’ command and Hizballah combined their resources to push against the local Syrian rebels of the South in the regions of the borders with Israel and Jordan.
It is doubtful whether Trump and Putin were able to work out something tangible in their first phone conversation since the US fired Tomahawk cruise missiles against the Syrian Shayrat air base on April 7. The Russian president used the shock of that event to cultivate closer ties with the Syrian ruler and strengthen his missile defenses, in case of an American repeat attack or Israeli air strikes on military targets in Syria.
At the same time, Putin becamed more careful about infringing on parts of Syria deemed to be under American influence, especially the Kurdish enclaves.
The US president was also careful not to direct personal attacks on Putin or criticize Russia’s military involvement in Syria, merely expressing the hope that at some point the two powers could reach an understanding to end the vicious conflict.
When reporters in Sochi asked the Russian president if he thought he could sell his plan to Assad, he replied: “A ceasefire is the first priority and cooperation with Washington is critical.”
At the same time, Russia operates in tandem with Turkey and Iran and was trying to “create the conditions for political cooperation on all sides,” he said.
Clearly, Putin was making the point that, just as the US deals with the Syrian issue in alignment with Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan, Russia coordinates its actions with Iran and Turkey. Since both presidents are similarly weighed down by their allies, the road to a consensus between Washington and Moscow is destined to be long with many convolutions. Therefore, the tension on the Israeli and Jordanian borders of southern Syria will continue to escalate before it abates.