[Originally published under the headline "Trump and Putin praise Israel in Helsinki, Diverge on Syria and Iran"]
US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Israel, Syria, and Iran at their meeting in Helsinki on Monday and in subsequent comments to the press. The public comments provide some insight into their view of the future Middle East. With the Syrian regime conducting a major offensive in the south, the US deeply involved in eastern Syria and Israel demanding that the Iranians leave, these were central topics of concern.
Trump spoke first with a discussion of Israel. "We've worked with Israel long and hard for many years," he said, adding that the US has never been closer to Israel than it is today. "President Putin also is helping Israel, and we both spoke with 'Bibi' Netanyahu and they would like to do certain things with respect to Syria, having to do with the safety of Israel."
Trump said "we," which apparently indicated that Moscow and Washington are both working with Israel and "Israel working with us." He continued, "I think their working with Israel is a great thing – and creating safety for Israel is something both President Putin and I would like to see very much."
Putin argued that Russia was helping to "crush terrorists in the southwest of Syria." He mentioned the 1974 cease-fire lines on the Golan. "This will bring peace to the Golan Heights and bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel – and also provide security for the State of Israel." Putin said he paid "special attention" to the issue when sitting with Trump.
The two also discussed the future of Syria. Trump claimed the US military was successfully coordinating with Russia in Syria. "Our military do [sic] get along very well," he said. Putin then remarked that Russia was working to establish peace and reconciliation. "Russia and the United States apparently can act proactively and take leadership on this issue," he said, emphasizing that coordination between the US and Russian militaries in Syria had helped avoid "dangerous incidents and unintentional collisions."
Putin said the crucial issue now was relating to refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. "If we help them, the migratory pressure upon the European states will drop." He mentioned that Russia was working closely with Turkey and Iran, "so that we will be able to maximize our fighting chance together for ultimate success on the issue of Syria."
The Russian leader shrugged off a question about the "ball" being in Russia's court in deciding what's next in Syria. He said he would hand the ball to Trump, making a joke about the World Cup. Trump agreed that humanitarian concerns were a key issue for the people of Syria.
On Iran, Putin said the Iranian nuclear deal had helped ensure "the peaceful nature of its nuclear program." Trump emphasized the need to pressure Iran and "stop its campaign of violence throughout the area – throughout the Middle East." He then said the US would not allow Iran to benefit from the defeat of ISIS. Trump claimed ISIS had been 99% defeated and said Russia was helping.
So what was said and what was left unsaid?
Both Putin and Trump appeared to understand, and to some extent support, Israel's concerns regarding Syria. They were keyed into Jerusalem's policy, which has included air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria over the last six years. The use of the words "us" and "we" to describe Israel's relationship with Moscow and Washington points to an unprecedented level of understanding between Jerusalem and the two world powers.
Probably never before have Moscow and Washington been closer in terms of listening to Israel's concerns. The fact that both Washington and Moscow have their own agendas in Syria – neither of which always mesh with Israel's agenda – was left unsaid. The fact is, Russia cannot remove Iran from Syria, which is Israel's main goal. Washington also has not committed to removing Iran from Syria, since it is still concentrating resources on defeating ISIS.
Putin sees Iran as an important player in the region, not as an adversary. He would also like to work more closely with Turkey. Trump, meanwhile, is adamantly opposed to Iran. Here the two leaders expressed differences. Putin was noticeably tight-lipped about his views regarding Tehran's policies. This could point to growing daylight between Moscow and Iran, but it more likely points to Putin's tendency toward generalization that allows Russia more room to maneuver. The US prefers clearly-stated goals; Russia prefers the veneer of discussing international law, while maintaining the opaque nature of Moscow's actual policy relating to Iran in places like Syria.
Overall, the meeting between the two leaders was weak on substance. Prior to the summit, some in Israel had pushed stories about Russia agreeing to some sort of concept in which Iran leaves Syria when the conflict is done. But after Netanyahu's meeting with Putin and then with Trump, it is clear there will be no clear comment about Iran's future role in Syria – or about Israel's continued opposition to any Iranian forces remaining there.
Seth Frantzman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum