Six months after President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike against a Syrian government airbase, an act his aides said would give the U.S. renewed leverage across the Middle East, he is increasingly a bystander as Russian President Vladimir Putin takes the lead in shaping post-war Syria.
On Wednesday, Putin will host the presidents of Iran and Turkey in the resort city of Sochi — one of several Russian-brokered meetings the U.S. will not attend as the Syrian conflict winds down.
With rebel fighters largely routed and the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, driven from most of Syria’s territory, experts and U.S. officials say the real fight now is about a regional power struggle playing out in the country.
The Sochi summit follows a surprise Tuesday meeting between Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has survived a six-and-a-half-year civil war thanks largely to Russian support. Putin called Trump Tuesday to brief him on his talks with the Syrian dictator.
“Putin has won” in Syria, said Ilan Goldenberg, who worked on Middle East issues at the Pentagon and State Department under President Barack Obama. “That’s partly Obama’s fault — and partly Trump’s fault.”
Trump may not care: He has said privately that he considers Syria to be Obama’s failure and that he sees little the U.S. can do about it now, according to a person briefed on one of his conversations. That view was reflected in Trump’s decision earlier this year to cancel a covert CIA program that armed moderate Syrian rebels fighting Assad’s regime.
But Trump has at least one major unmet goal in Syria: rolling back the influence of Iran, which partnered with Russia to defend Assad.
“Iran is not going to be in charge, and Iran is not going to have any sort of leadership in that situation to where they can do more harm,” Trump’s United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley said of the country in September.
Trump has not managed thus far to drive Moscow and Tehran apart, however. A White House readout of his Tuesday call with Putin made no mention of Iran, while a Kremlin readout only affirmed Putin’s support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has threatened to sabotage.
A more detailed joint statement on Syria issued by the U.S. and Russia after Trump and Putin met at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam Nov. 11 also made no mention of Iranian influence.
With little ability to shape the Syrian battlefield, Trump officials have been working with the Russians on narrow goals like brokering local ceasefires meant to gradually diminish violence in the country.
But Putin’s large military presence on the ground in Syria — where he dispatched troops and air power in September 2015 — has put him in the diplomatic driver’s seat when it comes to planning Syria’s future once the fighting stops.
Putin also spoke Tuesday speak about Syria with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi King Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Qatar’s foreign minister.
“It’s become quite clear that the Assad-Putin-Iran gambit has almost completely won in Syria,” said Paul Salem, senior vice president at the Middle East Institute. The Russians “want to show their relevance and influence beyond the military phase” and broker a political settlement, he added.
Trump and his top officials have also largely muted complaints about Russian support for Assad, which they voiced bitterly after the Syrian regime’s April chemical attack on innocent civilians.
“We think that it is time that the Russians really need to think carefully about their continued support of the Assad regime,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters at the time. But Trump officials have since dropped that rhetoric.
As a candidate, Trump never suggested that he would intervene in Syria, where he warned that the defeat of Assad’s government could mean a victory for ISIS or al Qaeda terrorists.
But the April missile strike raised expectations that he might assume a more assertive role in the Syrian conflict than Obama — who feared getting bogged down and in 2013 backed away at the last minute from launching airstrikes — had ever risked.
Putin still needs U.S. buy-in to any Syrian peace process, regional experts said. The Russian leader doesn’t want to be saddled with the economic, political or security responsibilities of holding the country together.
That could present a diplomatic opportunity for Trump, who has yet to reveal a strategy for winning concessions from Putin in exchange for American support.
“If there can be some kind of international agreement that ends the Syrian civil war and blesses his victory, that’s what Putin wants,” said Goldenberg, now with the Center for a New American Security.
“The question is whether Trump is smart enough to make Putin pay for any of that — or whether he’s going to give it to him for free,” he added.
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