ANALYSIS: The Putin-Trump summit didn’t change anything for Israel, and maybe that’s not so bad

There was nothing stated publicly during the Putin-Trump summit in Helsinki that suggests a major change of policy in Syria — and for Israel that might not be such a bad thing. 

By: Mati Wagner, World Israel News

Ahead of the summit in Helsinki between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the concerns of Americans and Europeans, as well as Israelis, were mainly focused on what concessions — if any — Trump would make to Putin.

There was absolutely no expectation that Putin would concede to Trump on any significant position. He would not commit to stop undermining the European Union, he would not agree to cease actions aimed at weakening the NATO alliance, he would never remove Russian forces occupying eastern Ukraine or reverse the takeover of Crimea. Nor would he cease collaboration with Iran in Syria, let alone support US efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons by restoring sanctions.

However, the worry of many in the West and in Israel was that Trump would give in to Russia. For Europeans and Americans, concerns focused mainly on issues such as the US’s continued support for NATO, its continued military aid to western Ukraine as a bulwark against Russian encroachment and the renewal of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

Americans’ fears were affirmed when they witnessed their president take the side of Putin against the US intelligence community regarding suspected Russian interference in the 2016 US elections.

For Israelis, concern ahead of the summit was primarily focused on Syria and the extent to which Trump would stand by Israel’s interest in seeing Iran’s influence reduced there if not eliminated altogether.

Remarks made by Trump and Putin during short speeches and a press conference at the close of summit left little room for optimism that anything of significance was agreed upon regarding Syria and Iran, or for that matter, regarding anything else.

Russia, Iran, Syria and Israel

Putin did say that Russia was interested in reasserting the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement brokered by the US between Syria and Israel after the Yom Kippur War. The most important part of that agreement that is relevant today was the creation of a buffer zone between the two countries.

Putin’s position dovetails with comments made recently by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

“We have a Separation of Forces Agreement with Syria from 1974; this is the guiding principle. We will adhere to it very strictly and so must others, everyone.”

Little more was mentioned regarding Syria. Trump dodged a question by a reporter for Russia Today who directly asked Trump whether he and Putin had reached an agreement on Syria.

All that Trump was willing to offer was that the crisis in Syria is “complex.” He did say that the US would not allow Iran to benefit from the successful campaign against ISIS.

Trump made some general comments about how the US has worked with Israel for decades and that Putin is also committed to the safety of Israel and that both countries are working for this goal.

“Working with Israel is a great thing,” Trump said, and safety for Israel is something we both want to see.”

Nothing that happened at the Helsinki summit changed the consensus feeling going into the summit: Putin is not interested in cooperating with the West if it means giving up the things he holds to be important core interests.

Regarding Syria, this means consolidating the Assad regime’s control over southern Syria — an interest that does not necessarily clash with Israel’s interest. As Netanyahu and high-ranking IDF commanders have pointed out, before the Syrian civil war broke in 2011, Israel enjoyed relative calm along its border with Syria.

However, Russia also has no interest in seriously pressuring Iran to leave Syria. The opposite is true. For Russia it is advantageous to have Iranian forces inside Syria do the dirty work of supporting Assad’s regime.

Nothing that happened at the Helsinki summit points to a major change in Syria. And maybe that is not such a bad thing for Israel.