Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump have met at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Da Nang. Apart from a friendly handshake during a group photo session, Putin and Trump did not speak to the media together as they briefly did prior to their first meeting in July of this year at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
The two leaders instead opted to release a joint statement limited to the situation in Syria.
The statement reads as follows:
“President Trump and President Putin today, meeting on the margins of the APEC conference in Danang, Vietnam, confirmed their determination to defeat ISIS in Syria. They expressed their satisfaction with successful US-Russia enhanced de-confliction efforts between US and Russian military professionals that have dramatically accelerated ISIS’s losses on the battlefield in recent months. The Presidents agreed to maintain open military channels of communication between military professionals to help ensure the safety of both US and Russian forces and de-confliction of partnered forces engaged in the fight against ISIS. They confirmed these efforts will be continued until the final defeat of ISIS is achieved.
The Presidents agreed that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. They confirmed that the ultimate political solution to the conflict must be forged through the Geneva process pursuant to UNSCR 2254. They also took note of President Assad’s recent commitment to the Geneva process and constitutional reform and elections as called for under UNSCR 2254. The two Presidents affirmed that these steps must include full implementation of UNSCR 2254, including constitutional reform and free and fair elections under UN supervision, held to the highest international standards of transparency, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate. The Presidents affirmed their commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence, territorial integrity, and non-sectarian character, as defined in UNSCR 2254, and urged all Syrian parties to participate actively in the Geneva political process and to support efforts to ensure its success.
Finally President Trump and President Putin confirmed the importance of de-escalation areas as an interim step to reduce violence in Syria, enforce ceasefire agreements, facilitate unhindered humanitarian access, and set the conditions for the ultimate political solution to the conflict. They reviewed progress on the ceasefire in southwest Syria that was finalized the last time the two Presidents met in Hamburg, Germany on July 7, 2017. The two presidents, today, welcomed the Memorandum of Principles concluded in Amman, Jordan, on November 8, 2017, between the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Russian Federation, and the United States of America. This Memorandum reinforces the success of the ceasefire initiative, to include the reduction, and ultimate elimination of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the area to ensure a more sustainable peace. Monitoring this ceasefire arrangement will continue to take place through the Amman Monitoring Center, with participation by expert teams from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, the Russian Federation, and the United States.
The two Presidents discussed the ongoing need to reduce human suffering in Syria and called on all UN member states to increase their contributions to address these humanitarian needs over the coming months”.
To put it mildly, the statement has no practical value and offers no new insights into US-Russia relations, nor does it offer any new information on Syria. The statement merely reflects the formal status quo that has existed between Washington and Moscow since the initial Putin-Trump meeting.
While the statement says that the US will, like Russia, support Syria’s territorial integrity, unity and non-sectarian nature, continued US support for sectarian Kurdish militants in Syria suggests that the US does not take this element of the statement seriously.
The real test to see how the “political solution” to the Syrian conflict will pan out, will be when Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Putin for substantial talks in Moscow next week.
While Russia tends to take an agnostic position on Kurdish agitations and has demonstrated a willingness to facilitate dialogue between moderate Kurds and Damascus, Turkey, which participates in the Astana peace process along with Russia and Iran, does not want any concessions made to Kurdish ethno-nationalists.
In this sense, the meeting between Putin and Erdogan, may iron out the overarching position on the Kurdish question among the Astana Group partners. Because Russia holds the most sway of any international power in Syria, Russia’s response to Erdogan’s views on the Kurdish question will ultimately decide the next phase of the conflict more than the repetitive statement issued after the brief Putin-Trump meeting.
As for the United States, it all boils down to “will the US stay or will the US go”, in respect of Syria. ISIS is now defeated in Syria and the US previously claimed it would leave Syria at such a time. Whether the US lives up to its previous statements on this issue or not is the most important facet concerning US involvement in Syria at this time.
The joint statement from Putin and Trump does not provide any answers to this. It merely demonstrates that Donald Trump was prohibited, by his own country, from having a wide ranging discussion with President Putin.
Meeting at a pan-Pacific conference which includes the leaders of the US, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan, one would have thought that Putin and Trump would have made a statement that included a discussion about policy positions on North Korea. The fact that this did not happen demonstrates the unwillingness of the US to work with Russia on the subject. Instead, the results of the Putin-Trump meeting from July were simply rehashed, thus demonstrating that in a few short months, US-Russia relations have declined even further.