Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1354, (27 July - 2 August 2017)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1354, (27 July - 2 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Reflecting on the US-Russia summit

Regardless of whatever happened when Trump met Putin, the crises of the Middle East region will not disappear and demand Arab acumen if they are to be contained, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

اقرأ باللغة العربية

By the time this article appears, more than two weeks will have passed since the first “official” summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart Donald Trump on 9 July. Perhaps the interval was necessary so that the heavy fog surrounding the summit could clear as we focus on the impact of US investigations regarding Russian intervention in the US presidential elections in favour of the Republican candidate and current president, Trump. In all events, two days before the summit, an article appearing on The Hill news website featured a list of “five things to watch for in the Trump-Putin meeting”: What will Trump say about Russian meddling? Who will be in the meeting? What will the body language be like? What will Putin do? And, any way forward on Syria? Such questions would be the keys to understanding what went on in the meeting between the two leaders, the article wrote.

The first round of commentary focussed on whether Trump was forceful enough on the question of Russian meddling in the democratic process in the US.

Washington — Secretary of State Tillerson in particular — stressed that Trump had raised the issue in a manner commensurate to the nature of the alleged offence and condemned Russian behaviour. Putin emphatically denied that Russia was involved in any tampering and it appears that Trump was convinced.

Now much more information is available on the US-Russian summit. It all combines to shift the focus away from the points that everyone wanted to remain at the centre of attention, namely how Trump would stand the test of defending US democracy and protesting Russian behaviour, and secondly, how both Putin and Trump would betray previous relations between them through their body language. In fact, the summit was quintessentially strategic. It brings to mind observations made in this column regarding Trump’s outlook towards Russia which entertains the possibility of an epoch-making deal between Washington and Moscow that would serve the interests of both sides and change the world.

Before the meeting, observers held that the fact that it would take place on the fringes of the G20 Summit signified that it would be merely exploratory in nature.

After all, only 30 minutes had been slotted for this meeting in the two leaders’ schedules. In fact, their encounter turned out to be of another order entirely. Not only did it end up lasting 140 minutes, Putin and Trump re-joined each other for a tête-à-tête over a private dinner attended by no one else apart from the Russian and American foreign ministers who were present in the first meeting. Trump may have reignited doubts about the nature of the meeting when he once again suggested that Russia may have meddled in the US elections, although he then added that other parties could have been guilty as well and concluded, “No one really knows.”

The actual outputs of the meeting probably speak more succinctly about what happened in it. The two sides agreed on a ceasefire for southern Syria in tandem with efforts to promote de-escalation elsewhere in the country apart from the areas involved in the fight against IS. In addition, the US, perhaps in response to a Russian request, decided to halt the CIA sponsored programme to arm anti-Assad rebel groups. It also accepts an extensive Russian presence in Syria that includes not just air and naval bases but also land bases, as well as the right of the Russian-owned company Evro Polis to exploit Syrian oil and gas and that of the Russian Stroytransgaz firm to extract phosphates from areas that had been under control of IS. As far as the final picture of Syria goes, it looks like Trump has granted all of Russia’s wishes, starting from the recognition of the legitimacy of the Bashar Al-Assad regime to acknowledging Russia as the dominant party not just on the ground in Syria but also in the management of the political process related to that crisis. This, moreover, occurred in spite of Israeli protests that the Russian-US agreement over Syria jeopardises Israeli security on the grounds that not only does it put Russian groups near Israeli borders but also Iranian and Hizbullah forces.

Russia’s reassurances to Israel in this regard have not entirely dispelled Tel Aviv’s concerns.

Is the Russian-US agreement on Syria part of a larger deal between the two powers? If so, what else does it comprise? Iraq? Ukraine? Both places and/or other places in the world? Reports published after the meeting between the two leaders offer little information and no information was released about their dinner meeting that leaves the occasion shrouded in an impenetrable cloud of mystery. However, one thing appears certain, which is that Trump’s strategy of concordance with Russia is still intact long after the election campaigns and there is nothing to hamper it apart from Congressional resistance (on the part of both Republicans and Democrats) to cosy relations with Russia after Russia’s tampering in the US polls, which has been confirmed by all US intelligence agencies. In spite of this, Trump agreed with Putin to form a “cybersecurity unit” for the two countries. Moreover, the US president suggested a possibility of rolling back sanctions against Russia in connection with the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of the Crimea into the Russian Federation.

The agreements over Syria and the understandings in other areas tell us that the Putin-Trump summit was not about electoral tampering but rather about Trump’s ongoing pursuit of his vision for the type or relations he wants to establish with Moscow. One is reminded, here, of the US-Russian Summit in Moscow in May 1972 between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev which called for military de-escalation in the Middle East, produced the Salt 1 Agreement intended to rein in the nuclear arms race between the two countries, and proclaimed the policy of “detente.” One also recalls the Reykjavik Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev which probably marked the beginning of the end to the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Hamburg summit between Trump and Putin might have the same historical impact, at least if we could learn what happened between the two leaders during their dinner meeting which was attended by no one and produced no official statement afterwards, although it was rumoured that the Middle East took up quite a bit of their time.

This brings us to an important point, which is that what matters is not so much what happened during their meeting, as what effects the outcomes of that meeting will have on the Arab region and especially that “Fertile Crescent” area in which the questions of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are intertwined with repercussions on Jordan and the Gulf while Israel watches nervously and is poised to act. Because of this larger context, the ceasefire and de-escalation in Syria, as important as these processes are, do not signal the end of the mega crisis that has engulfed the region for the past six years. In fact, they could signal the beginning of other and even more severe crises. What is important is for the Arabs to be prepared and ready to work in concert. In spite of all US-Russian (or Soviet at the time) agreements, the Arabs won their greatest historical victory in 1973.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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