America has been defeated by Russia in a struggle for influence over postwar Syria, experts told Politico. While at one time both countries were vying for influence over Damascus, President Trump has all but backed off as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to host talks with regional leaders, without the U.S., in the waning days of the civil war. "Putin has won," declared Ilan Goldenberg, who worked at the Pentagon and State Department under former President Barack Obama.
Trump's reluctance to commit to the region reportedly stems from his belief that Syria is a failure of Obama's making. Instead, the Trump administration's foreign policy goals center on backing Iran — a regional ally of Putin's — out of having a say on Syria. "It's become quite clear that the [Syrian President Bashar] Assad-Putin-Iran gambit has almost completely won in Syria," explained the senior vice president of the Middle East Institute, Paul Salem. "[The Russians] want to show their relevance and influence beyond the military phase" by hosting further postwar talks.
One such meeting takes place Wednesday, as Putin hosts the presidents of Iran and Turkey in the Russian town of Sochi. Putin also reportedly met with Assad on Tuesday, and later called Trump to brief him on the details of the conversation. Jeva Lange
Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in Sochi, Russia, on Monday, the Kremlin announced Tuesday. Assad thanked Putin "and all Russian people" for "the efforts that Russia made to save our country," and Putin said Russia's "joint operation to fight terrorists in Syria, this military operation is indeed coming to an end." Putin and Assad use the word "terrorists" to describe both Islamic State militants and Syrians who oppose Assad in the civil war that has roiled Syria since March 2011.
More than 400,000 people have been killed in the war and millions of Syrians fled to Europe and elsewhere, and Russia's use of military force on Assad's behalf starting in 2015 tipped the war decisively in Assad's favor. This was only Assad's second trip out of Syria since his harsh crackdown on protesters led to war, following an October 2015 visit to Russia. On Wednesday, Putin is hosting the leaders of Iran, which also backed Assad, and Turkey, which supported the opposition.
Video and photos released by Russia show Putin and Assad embracing and meeting with Russian generals and other military leaders. "I would like to introduce you to people who played a key role in saving Syria," Putin told Assad.
On Friday, Russian Gen. Valery Gerasimov announced that Moscow has begun the drawdown of its forces in Syria, starting with the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier and accompanying ships. Russia has been lending military support, mostly air power, to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2015, with the majority of sorties leaving from the Hemeimeem airbase in Syria and one in Iran, but Russia has launched airstrikes from the Admiral Kuznetsov since mid-November. This was the aircraft carrier's first combat mission, and it lost two fighter jets, both of which crashed into the sea, one in November and the other last month.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered the drawdown on Dec. 29, a day before a cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey took effect. Russia's air power is credited with turning Syria's bloody civil war in Assad's favor. It is unclear how much of a military presence Moscow plans to maintain in Syria. This isn't Russia's first "withdrawal" from Syria, BBC News notes. A few warplanes were flown out after Putin announced an earlier drawdown in March 2016. Peter Weber
The president-elect's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., met with Russian supporters in Paris last month to discuss how to end the war in Syria, people who took part in the talks told The Wall Street Journal. The talks, held before the U.S. election, were attended by 30 people including diplomats, politicians, and businessmen and were hosted by French think tank founders Fabien Baussart and his wife, Randa Kassis, both of whom have worked closely with the Kremlin on the topic of Syria.
President Barack Obama ended talks with Russia on Syria last month when a Russian-backed bombing campaign targeted the city of Aleppo. Russia has been repeatedly accused of committing war crimes in the country. President-elect Donald Trump has argued that allying with Russia and backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be a quicker route to defeating ISIS and stabilizing the Middle East.
Kassis said that in her conversation with Donald Trump Jr., she communicated "how we can cooperate together." Kassis also reportedly discussed her conversation with Donald Trump Jr. with senior Russian officials, including the deputy head of Russia's foreign ministry. The foreign ministry did not comment.
Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said in an email to The Wall Street Journal that Donald Trump Jr.'s interactions with Kassis were limited. "Don was addressing a roundtable in Paris, and [Kassis] was present for that talk and at a group dinner for 30 people. This event featured a number of opinion leaders from all over the world who were interested in the U.S. elections," Conway said. Jeva Lange
The U.S. publicly held Russia responsible Tuesday for Sunday's deadly airstrikes on a humanitarian aid convoy delivering food and medicine to a besieged town outside Aleppo, Syria, but unidentified U.S. officials also said they are almost certain that Russian aircraft actually carried out the bombing, which destroyed 18 trucks and killed at least 20 people, according to the United Nations. The U.S. can track aircraft in the area, and the Pentagon has determined with "very high probability" that a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was directly over the convoy less than a minute before the airstrike, a senior U.S. official tells The New York Times. "We know the plane in question was Russian, not Syrian, and was directly overhead."
"We have no indication that anything other than Russian tactical aircraft were in the air at the time the convoy was struck, to include both strike and reconnaissance aircraft," a second American official tells the Times. "We have seen no indication that it was anything other than an airstrike." A U.S. official also told CBS News that "preliminary indications" were that a Russian jet hit the convoy.
Witnesses and survivors say that the convoy was hit with multiple strikes as workers were unloading the food and medicine, then rescue workers were killed when they came to assist the injured. A Red Cross official says a hospital was also destroyed in the attack. The United Nations has condemned the attack, with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling it "sickening, savage, and apparently deliberate," and a top U.N. aid official saying it was likely a war crime. Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, called the attack a "flagrant violation" of international law.
Russian officials have responded with an evolving series of denials and accusations. The U.S. "has no facts," Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at the U.N. on Tuesday. "We have nothing to do with this situation." Peter Weber
The United States and Russia are close to reaching agreement on national ceasefire in Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday, but have yet to sign a deal. Following talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva, Kerry said there are still "a few narrow issues to be resolved" before a lasting accord can be reached.
"We don't want to have a deal for the sake of the deal," he explained. "We want to have something done that is effective and that works for the people of Syria, that makes the region more stable and secure, and that brings us to the table here in Geneva to find a political solution."
Last week, Russia revealed that it was using an Iranian airbase to attack targets inside Syria, and Iran on Monday suggested that this arrangement was supposed to be kept secret. Russia "will use the base for a very short and fixed span, corresponding (to) operation in Syria," said Iran's defense minister, Gen. Hossein Dehghan, as quoted on state TV. "Russians are interested to show they are a superpower to guarantee their share in political future of Syria and, of course, there has been a kind of show-off and ungentlemanly (attitude) in this field."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi also said on Monday that Russia had used the base but "is finished for now," according to the Tasnim news agency. The disclosure that Russia is using Shahid Nojeh Air Base appeared to be unpopular with Iran's public, and Dehghan was responding to a pointed question from parliament as to why Iran had not announced the arrangement first. Like many things in the region, there is history behind the diplomatic brouhaha, The Associated Press notes: Russia invaded Iran in World War II alongside Britain to secure oilfields and Allied supply routes, but unlike Britain, Russia refused to leave after the war was over. Peter Weber
Syrian rebels shot down a Russian transport helicopter with five people aboard, Moscow confirmed Monday. The aircraft had been delivering humanitarian aid to the Syrian city of Aleppo; it is not clear what specific group in the region was responsible for bringing the helicopter down. The Kremlin said everybody aboard was killed in the crash.