Helsinki Summit an Opportunity to Win Russia’s Support for Constraining Iran in Syria

Amid the specter of a possible Israeli strike against Iran, a top U.S. official and his Russian counterpart met one-on-one to address the Iranian threat. The year was 2010, and then Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressured his Russian counterpart to rescind military assistance to Tehran, specifically the promised delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense system. Ultimately, the Russians agreed to postpone their deal with Iran, essentially selling out their client.

The Trump administration should study this recent episode as the president heads to Helsinki to meet Vladimir Putin. Trump is allegedly eager to secure Russian assistance in significantly reducing or eliminating Iran’s military presence in Syria. The S-300 decision shows Moscow can be persuaded to act against Iran, albeit with difficulty.

For sure, convincing Russia to help constrain Iran in Syria will be a much tougher proposition than deferring the S-300. Putin may appear the dominant partner in the Moscow-Tehran-Damascus triangle, and Russian airpower, money and diplomatic clout provides appreciable sway over Assad. Yet Iranian entrenchment in Syria is deep and pervasive and won’t be easily scaled back.

Iranian-backed ground forces and money have been vital to Assad’s survival. Tehran commands thousands of IRGC, Hezbollah and foreign Shiite militiamen in Syria, as well as tens of thousands of home-grown Syrian fighters that are now being integrated into Syria’s military, but whose primary allegiance is to Iran. Pushing back this formidable threat will be a major challenge – even if Putin proves willing.

Nevertheless, it is precisely the extent of Iran’s penetration of Syria that makes the current situation so dangerous, and an American effort to thwart it so necessary. As Assad seeks to reconquer the last opposition holdouts, he is essentially extending Iran’s future power-projection capabilities to the borders of Israel and Jordan, exponentially increasing the chances of a major Israeli-Iranian conflict that the United States would have difficulty avoiding.

It is clearly in America’s interest to prevent Iran’s further entrenchment. Even if the prospects for securing Moscow’s cooperation aren’t good, Putin’s readiness to help should be seriously tested. National Security Advisor John Bolton had it right when he said recently, “There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria… I don’t think Assad is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue.”

But President Trump should have no illusions about Russia’s willingness to help the United States in Syria. As in the past, Putin’s instinct will be to do the minimum necessary to gain U.S. consent for Assad’s reassertion of control throughout Syria. Given the president’s oft-stated eagerness to “come home” from Syria as soon as possible, Putin may believe a few vague promises from Russia to work for an Iranian withdrawal will be enough for the United States to pack up and leave.

Trump must disabuse Putin of that perception in Helsinki and deal with Russia from a position of maximum leverage. The S-300 episode offers guidance on how that might be done.

First, the United States and its allies must present a united front to Russia. Just as echoing and emphasizing Israel’s concerns helped Washington convince Moscow that the S-300 deal could risk important Russian equities, President Trump must convey to Putin the unanimous opposition to Iran’s military presence in Syria from America and its regional allies, including Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and U.A.E.

Second, the United States must negotiate from a position of strength. In 2010, Israel could credibly threaten preemptive military action against Iran, which Moscow sought to avoid. Similarly, President Trump must be clear with Putin, and by extension Assad, that so long as Iranian entrenchment in Syria persists, Israel will have total U.S. support if its escalating operations against Iran trigger a major war – even if it jeopardizes Russia’s entire project to salvage the Assad regime.

Finally, the deal needs a sweetener. Russia only agreed to scrap the S-300 deal after Israel agreed to sell it advanced drones. Trump should tell Putin that, while we are prepared to withdraw U.S. forces from the vital strategic terrain they control in southern and eastern Syria – a major aim of both Russia and the Assad regime – we will only do so after the permanent removal of all Iranian-backed forces has been fully verified, and adequate protections are in place for the security and rights of our local partners in Syria that proved so crucial in the fight against Islamic State.

The president must head to Helsinki clear-eyed – both about the small probability of Russia joining the United States, Israel and others in rolling back Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, and about the strength and resolve he must demonstrate for Putin to take U.S. interests seriously. But given the stakes involved, it is worth testing if Russia, once again, can be convinced to constrain Iran.

Originally appeared in The Hill on July 15, 2018.