The Trump-Putin summit came at a highly propitious time, with respect to the Syrian civil war that is now in its final stage. Statements by both leaders reflect not only a common understanding of the problems in Syria that lie ahead but the reality that this is an area where both leaders have been engaged with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the need to ensure Israeli security as well as the refugee problem and a need to eliminate ISIS and other radical terrorists in the area.
Following his own meeting with Mr. Putin last week Mr. Netanyahu pointed to the 1974 Israeli-Syrian disengagement agreement as a basis for future relations. Mr. Putin also pointed to this agreement in his remarks and for good reason. The 1974 agreement was the product of efforts by Israel and Syria, as well as the United States and Russia (then the Soviet Union) to meet security concerns in the aftermath of the 1973 Middle East War.
While the 1974 agreement was not a peace treaty, it resulted in 40 years of peaceful co-existence. This is the status quo ante Israel would like to see and is willing to accept the Assad government back in charge of Syrian areas where rebels and Iranian forces can launch rockets and attacks into Israel. This is not only an Israeli problem, but one for the Syrian Druze communities that have suffered at the hand of ISIS and other rebels. Not often reported is the medical and humanitarian aid Israel has provided to their Syrian neighbors during the brutal seven years of the civil war.
The first major problem in restoring this stable situation remains the presence of Iranian forces and their Hezbollah proxies in close proximity to the Israeli border who have no interest in abiding by the 1974 agreement. It is unrealistic to think that Mr. Putin alone can now force the Iranians out of Syria, and earlier talk of some “deal” whereby he would do so as part of some larger agreement with Mr. Trump and Mr. Netanyahu was ill-informed.
What is clear now is the commitment on the part of Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin and Mr. Netanyahu that Israel’s security concerns are paramount. Whether the Iranian forces can be held 80 kilometers from Israel may be possible, although Israel believes even this is inadequate. Ultimately Israel and Syria may yet again look to the context of the 1974 agreement, and if Iranian rockets are launched into Israel, then Israel will respond and eliminate the Iranian bases and personnel responsible.
The second major concern, addressed by both Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin following the Helsinki summit, is the very difficult problem for all parties posed by the large number of refugees, many of whom currently reside in the adjacent states of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. This is a catastrophic situation in desperate need of an international plan for the rebuilding of war-torn areas within Syria and the repatriation of millions who have fled during the civil war.
Speaking in Helsinki after the summit Mr. Putin mentioned that progress could be made in accordance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 338, where in 1973 both the U.S. and the Soviet Union called for a cease fire in the Arab-Israeli war that was ongoing at the time. This at least raises the important question as to what role the United Nations can play, as well as the United States and Russia, in dealing with the refugee and humanitarian crisis. It also shows a willingness on the part of Russia to explore the U.N. mechanisms that could be utilized here.
In the past the U.N. has demonstrated the ability to assist both in conflict disengagement as well as in dealing with the practical and logistics issues of refugee resettlement. While this is by no means a perfect record, it is certainly an avenue worth exploring. Presumably Ambassador Nikki Haley, a stellar member of the Trump team, will be discussing this with her Russian counterpart and others to see what is possible.
As the dust from the Syrian civil war settles it is clear that Bashar Assad has “won,” but it is also clear that Syria remains a bankrupt nation. Dealing with the rebuilding of the war-torn nation and repatriation of millions of refugees will be a costly enterprise. Certainly the United States will help but is not going to take on this burden alone, and Russia is not in an economic position to help much more. Here Syria should look to Saudi Arabia, the wealthier Gulf state, for assistance. For the Saudis this may be a useful avenue for countering the spread of Iranian influence in the Middle East and a worthwhile investment in their own security.
Increasingly the hallmark of the Trump foreign policy has been “recognizing reality.” Since taking office Mr. Trump and his team have looked to Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East in terms of where the world is today, and not myth about what might have been or what cannot be achieved. This past week has seen a major milestone in this regard. As in 1974, the United States, Russia and Israel are all in sync about common objectives in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war and are looking ahead for ways to achieve them going forward.
• Abraham Wagner is a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism.