US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

Moscow — Kremlin officials are in intense negotiations with their counterparts in Washington to strike at least one deal they hope will let President Donald Trump tout his summit with Vladimir Putin as a triumph that justifies steps to repair relations.

At the top of the list for the July 16 meeting in Helsinki, Finland, is Iran’s role in Syria, an issue that Moscow is simultaneously negotiating with Tehran, a senior Russian official said on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to comment on the record.

Putin has agreed in principle to US and Israeli demands that Iranian-backed forces in southern Syria be kept away from Israel’s border, replaced with troops loyal to the government in Damascus, two Kremlin advisers said.

After studying Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during which he announced a surprise halt to US military exercises with South Korea, Putin decided he needs to negotiate with the billionaire personally, the senior official said, without elaborating.

The two leaders may meet without aides, as Trump and Kim did in Singapore, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

One-on-one

US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman confirmed plans for a one-on-one meeting during a conference call on Thursday, saying Trump would go into the encounter with his "eyes wide open" about Putin’s intentions.

Trump has shifted away from his predecessor’s policy of demanding the ouster of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, a position formulated before Russia turned the tide of the country’s civil war in Assad’s favour with Iran’s help.

US national security adviser John Bolton, who recently met with Russia’s re-elected president to lay the groundwork for the summit, told CBS News on Sunday that wassad is no longer "the strategic issue" in Syria — Iran was.

"We’ll see what happens when the two of them get together," said Bolton, who has long advocated regime change in the Islamic Republic. "There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward."

The first extended meeting between the two presidents is being viewed in Russia as an opportunity to turn a new page in relations that have plunged to rock bottom over a host of issues. They include the war in Syria and the sanctions imposed on Russia for its alleged election meddling, its annexation of Crimea and support for secessionists in Ukraine.

The summit, if successful, could boost the likelihood of sanctions de-escalation, Citigroup said in a research note.

Major questions

Still, there are major questions about Putin’s ability to enforce any agreement involving Iran’s actions in Syria, even if he offers to deploy troops to stabilise the border areas in question.

This in turn is fuelling concern in Washington and among US allies in Europe that Trump may proclaim the Helsinki meeting a breakthrough without extracting any real concessions.

Trump trumpeted Kim’s vague pledge to "denuclearise" as a major victory for world peace, yet reports by researchers and media organisations have since detailed North Korean efforts to boost nuclear fuel production, build more missile launchers and expand a key rocket-engine plant.

Russia may have supplanted America as the indispensable arbiter in various Middle East conflicts but there’s only so far Putin is willing to go to appease Trump when it comes to Iran, says Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin.

"Trump can’t force Putin to turn away from Iran," Kortunov said. "Putin is not willing to push Iran too hard and he cannot rely on Trump."

Lavrov and Pompeo

Russia and Saudi Arabia have already irked Iran and pleased Trump by agreeing to roll back some of the cuts oil producers introduced to boost flagging prices.

At the same time, Russia is also working to salvage the Iranian nuclear accord that Trump abandoned and mitigate the sanctions he has reimposed.

The foreign ministers of Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain will discuss the issue with Iranian officials in Vienna on Friday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Wednesday that he would confer with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after the Helsinki summit about implementing whatever agreements are reached. Even so, he cautioned that "it’s absolutely not realistic" to demand Iran pull out of Syria altogether.

"As in any other part of the world, you have to start by sitting down at the negotiating table, lay out your concerns and talk about how to resolve them on a mutually acceptable basis," Lavrov told reporters in Moscow.

Pressure point

After seven years of grinding conflict, Iran and proxy forces including Hezbollah have built up a formidable presence along Syria’s borders with Israel and Lebanon.

That has drawn repeated missile strikes from Israel and threats of further action, which Russia is using to pressure Iran, according to Dmitri Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

While Russia and Iran have been on the same side, backing Assad against rebels armed by the US and its allies, their interests are now diverging as Putin seeks to secure his gains with regional backing, said Trenin, author of the 2017 book, What Is Russia Up To in the Middle East?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Putin in Moscow next week for the second time in as many months. This follows a visit to the Russian capital last month by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Russia backs a plan to replace Hezbollah fighters entrenched on the Syrian side of the border with Lebanon, said Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert in Moscow. That is part of efforts to encourage several million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries to return home.

"Russia wants to see the Syrian government take control of as much territory as possible," Suponina said.

Putin’s shifting positions on Syria and oil have angered officials in Tehran, according to Ali Khorram, a former Iranian ambassador to the United Nations.

"Russia has not only stabbed Iran in the back when it comes to Syria, but also voluntarily announced its readiness with Saudi Arabia to push Iran’s quota out of Opec," Khorram wrote in the Arman daily newspaper.

Putin’s strategy is to try to find middle ground between the conflicting interests of major players. In particular, he may give Israel a green light to bomb any Iranian convoy that tries to deliver advanced weaponry to Hezbollah while also allowing Iran to maintain shipments of conventional arms to its Lebanese proxy forces, according to Kortunov, the Kremlin adviser.

For Iran, the overriding goal is to maintain its influence inside Syria and keep supply lines open, said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow at the Washington Institute.

"Russia has an interest to bleed Iran in Syria, to weaken Iran but not collapse Iran because it may lose the Assad regime, which is its major card," said Sami Nader, head of the Levant Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut. "They want Iran in check and under control."

Bloomberg

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