What really happened behind closed doors at the US-Russia summit?

The secret discussions are likely to have profound implications for this region, particularly concerning Syria, Iran and Israel, writes Raghida Dergham
In this July 16, 20198, photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland. Trump has asked national security adviser John Bolton to invite Putin to Washington in the fall. That's the latest update Thursday from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders following Trump's meeting with Putin earlier this week in Finland. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

They reached accords, drew roadmaps and put forward mechanisms for co-operation, even as they donned fencing gear, before they went for their secretive solitary meeting to avoid unwanted disclosure and potential accountability. However, the ex-businessman Donald Trump embarrassed the office he represents in the presence of the ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin. That was his first mistake. But the almost unforgivable sin for the majority of Americans came when he failed to defend US judicial and intelligence institutions while standing beside the Russian president, after refusing to confront him over Moscow's meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Instead, Mr Trump chose to chip away at the credibility of the US investigation into the meddling, which had hours earlier issued indictments against 12 Russian operatives for their role in disrupting the democratic process.

The storm of controversy forced him to issue a non-apology apology, during which Mr Trump said he “misspoke” and claimed he meant the opposite when he said he didn’t see why Russia would have interfered in the 2016 US election.


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In truth, Mr Trump sees the allegation as undermining his election victory and believes his base's support for him is unwavering, no matter what happens. Mr Trump in reality does not regret his actions in Helsinki, whether in the closed room or at the conference, the proof being his plans to go ahead with inviting Mr Putin to the White House, even if Congress refuses to welcome him. Some kind of deal was reached between the two men but the details are known only to them, much to the chagrin of the US intelligence and political establishment.

What did Mr Trump give Mr Putin? Did he enlist him in his grand strategy or did he agree with him on strategic accords and deals from China to Syria, marking a real shift in US-Russian relations, away from rivalry and closer to alliance? If so, where would that leave the US’s traditional allies, especially in Nato? And what would be the implications for our region, especially if the supposed deal was a grand bargain for sharing influence and the mutual guaranteeing of interests? The biggest winner from the summit is Israel, whose prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu obtained a public commitment from both leaders for Israeli security, especially through Syria’s gateway.

This week Mr Netanyahu summed up Israel’s current position when he said that this was “a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel”, in reference to the Knesset’s passage of the new Jewish State law. The law states that Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and that the right to self-determination there only applies to Jews. The international silence to this radical shift in the history and identity of Israel, with the exception of some passing condemnations, is tantamount to endorsing the racism of a state that has long marketed itself as an exceptional democracy.

In truth, this law might be the first step towards ethnically cleansing Israel of its 1.5 million Palestinian citizens. The law upgrades Jewish citizens to a special status while demoting Palestinians to second-class citizens. Neither Russia nor the US has expressed reservations. The Europeans and even world media have fallen for this moral hypocrisy. As for the Arab world, helplessness and passivity has often been its trait, to the point that their interest in what was once called the Palestinian issue has reached historic lows.

The “pivotal moment”, however, comes on the heels of a US-Russian presidential pledge towards Israel’s priorities. Furthermore, the new law, which anoints a “unified Jerusalem” as the capital of Israel, comes just weeks after Mr Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

What matters is that the “deal of the century” prepared by Mr Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner includes plans to make Gaza the basis of the Palestinian state, combined with cantons in the West Bank. That plan has effectively led to the besieging of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who refused to negotiate the plan and has empowered Hamas, which is negotiating with Israel under the table.

The fact of the matter is that it is not the Arab world or international policies that are responsible for the situation in Palestine. Palestinian leaders and their divisions have also done their part. This does not invalidate the role of international parties, led by Russia, once a friend of the Palestinians in the Soviet era but which today rivals the US when it comes to appeasing Israeli priorities in Palestine as in Syria.

All indications suggest that the Israeli question therefore had the priority in the accords between Mr Trump and Mr Putin.

Mr Trump did not utter the name of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad during the press conference with Mr Putin, nor make demands regarding political transition or other issues. The conclusion one can draw here is clear: Mr Putin was able to convince Mr Trump to silently consent to Mr Al Assad remaining in power indefinitely because he is an important element in the strategy of weakening Iran in Syria.

Logically speaking, since the accords appear to have endorsed Israel’s security interests in Syria and Mr Al Assad’s survival with US-Russian-Israeli blessing, Mr Trump must have obtained Russian concessions regarding his Iran agenda. Most likely, Mr Putin has agreed to downgrade the relationship with Tehran from an alliance to a friendship, where he can advise, pressure and flex his muscles if needed. The goal, as Mr Trump said in the press conference, is to prevent Iran from benefiting from the anti-ISIS campaign by dominating the areas recovered from the militant group. This would prevent Iran from implementing its project to expand via Syria as part of the Iranian crescent project, linking Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria.

Containing Iran’s regional ambitions seems to have been approved by Russia in return for the US agreeing not to jump into a major confrontation or attempt at regime change in Iran. In other words, Mr Putin would help manage Iranian presence in Syria while working to achieve its gradual withdrawal while Mr Trump would agree to a gradual strategy of partnership with Russia on issues covering everything from oil to grand strategy, including the question of China.

Indeed, Mr Trump suggested China was part of the discussions prior to the meeting with Mr Putin. Perhaps Mr Trump is convinced now of the view held by a faction in the administration that believes US strategic interest lies in a radical shift in relations with Russia, from a foe to an ally, because the real main long-term foe is China, as they see it. This faction has in its ranks Steve Bannon and perhaps this explains the fact that John Bolton and Mike Pompeo have taken a backseat with regard to Mr Trump’s workings in Helsinki.

What did Mr Trump and Mr Putin do during their closed meeting in Finland? Did Mr Putin really devour Mr Trump, or did the latter head to the Finnish capital with a clear plan that he has now enlisted Mr Putin into?

We will not know the answer for sure but history will reveal one day whether there was collusion, or a grand bargain.

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham

Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National