While reading through the transcript of the joint press conference of Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki, there are many statements that have drawn the ire of analysts in Washington and elsewhere. But there are statements about the Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey that bear closer scrutiny for what they say and imply, and how the novel definition of Trump “realism,” which stresses partnership with the Russian leader, can contribute to solving the dilemma of refugee repatriation.
For example, President Putin noted that “As far as Syria is concerned, the task of establishing peace and reconciliation in this country could be the first showcase example of this successful joint work.” He believes that “Russia and the United States apparently can act proactively and take leadership on this issue and organize the interaction to overcome humanitarian crisis and help Syrian refugees to go back to their homes. In order to accomplish this level of successful cooperation in Syria, we have all the required components.”
As a commentator in The Hill noted on July 17th, “Trump suggested that the U.S. and Russia could work together to bring humanitarian relief to Syrians displaced by their country’s civil war. But Putin is propping up Syrian leader Bashar Assad, who uses chemical weapons against his own people in an effort to stay in power. The Syrian civil war, now in its eighth year, is at the root of a refugee crisis about which both leaders professed concerns without mentioning Assad.”
So it is fair to ask what was said and is there any reason to draw positive inferences from their words? Looked at in a regional context, Trump suggested that protecting Israel was the key priority, to keep it safe by reducing instability caused by the refugee crisis. “As we discussed at length, the crisis in Syria is a complex one.” He added, “Cooperation between our two countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.” He referenced Russia’s growing ties with Israel, “But I think that their [Russia] working with Israel is a great thing and creating safety for Israel is something that both President Putin and I would like to see very much,” without as much as a whisper about the security and stability of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
How this continues to strengthen Russia’s hands as the reigning great power in the region was not referenced, so is the US preparing to turn the region’s future over to some vague partnership that Russia leads and the US follows? In response to a question, Trump singled out humanitarian concerns without noting how the host countries are being affected. “One little thing I might add to that is the helping of people. Helping of people. Because you have such horrible, if you see and I've seen reports and I've seen pictures, I've seen just about everything. And if we can do something to help the people of Syria get back into some form of shelter and on a humanitarian basis, and that's what the word was really a humanitarian basis. I think that both of us would be very interested in doing that and we are. We will do that.”
In response to the same question President Putin said, “We did mention this. We mentioned the humanitarian track of this issue. Yesterday, I discussed this with French president Mr. Macron and we reached an agreement that together with European countries, including France, will step up this effort. On our behalf, we'll provide military cargo aircraft to deliver the humanitarian cargo and today I brought up this issue with President Trump. I think there are plenty of things to look into. The crucial thing here is that huge amount of refugees are in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan in the states that border adjacent to Syria. If we help them, the migratory pressure upon the European states will drop, will be decreased many fold.”
Putin went on “And I believe it's crucial from any point of view, from humanitarian point of view, from the point of view of helping people, helping the refugees and in general I agree, I concur with President Trump our military cooperate quite successfully together. They do get along and I hope they will be able to do so in future.”
So what these responses mean in practical terms will unfold in the coming weeks. Humanitarian assistance promised by the EU and facilitated by Russia underscores its leadership on this crisis. Putin made reference to the Astana Process, which includes Iran and Turkey, as a key coordinator of policy initiatives regarding Syria, further reinforcing its primacy on the Syria issue. And the implication is that this is likely what Trump supports: withdrawing US presence in Syria, supporting an Israeli-friendly peace process with Palestine, and gradual political and military disengagement from the region.
Whether or not this will serve America’s interests in the long-run is a vexing dilemma. After 70 tough years of our diplomatic, military, economic, and humanitarian investments in the Middle East, Trump seems to believe that disengagement is the way forward. Russia agrees…