During a private meeting shortly before the November 2016 elections, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, floated a long-time US interlocutor what sounded, at that time, like an unlikely deal. The Emirati leader told the American that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, could be interested in resolving the conflict in Syria in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed in response to Russia's actions in Ukraine.
Current and former US officials said that bin Zayed, known as MBZ, was not the only leader in the region that favored rapprochement among the old adversaries of the Cold War. While the closest allies of the United States in Europe saw with some trepidation the interest of Trump in associating with Putin, three countries that enjoy an influence without parallel with the incoming Administration: Israel, Saudi Arabia and EE. UU., They embraced the goal in private. Officials from the three countries have repeatedly encouraged their US counterparts to consider ending the sanctions related to Ukraine in exchange for Putin's help to expel Iranian forces from Syria.
Experts say such an agreement would be impractical, even if Trump were interested. They say Putin does not have the interest or the ability to pressure the Iranian forces to leave Syria. Administration officials have said that Syria and Ukraine will be some of the issues that Trump and Putin will discuss at their summit in Helsinki on July 16. White House officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The special lawyer, Robert Mueller, and his team, in charge of investigating Russia's interference in the 2016 elections, have been investigating whether the US UU facilitated contacts between the Trump team and Russian officials and sought to influence US policy. UU Nine days before the inauguration of Trump, Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater and confidant of Steve Bannon, met at the MBZ complex in the Seychelles with Kirill Dmitriev, head of the sovereign wealth fund of Russia, whom the Emiratis used as intermediary. with Putin. (An article published in April 2017 in Washington ) revealed the meeting in the Indian Ocean and stated that "the UAE agreed to mediate in the meeting in part to explore whether Russia can be persuaded to reduce its relationship with Iran, included in Syria, an objective of the Trump administration that will probably require greater concessions to Moscow on US sanctions. ")
Mueller's team has also focused on Trump's transition team meetings in December 2016 , which involved official Emiratis and Russians. One, in a hotel in New York, was attended by M.B.Z., and another, in Trump Tower, was attended by Sergey Kislyak, the then Russian ambassador in Washington. During the December 1, 2016, meeting between Kislyak and the Trump transition team, both sides wanted to discuss the conflict in Syria, and the Russian ambassador proposed to arrange a conversation between Michael Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, and the people to which his "generals" referred, according to the congressional testimony of Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and principal advisor. To prevent the intelligence agencies from listening to the conversation, Kislyak proposed using a "secure line", which led Kushner to suggest using secure communications equipment hosted at the Russian Embassy in Washington.
M.B.Z. He is considered one of the strategic thinkers of the Middle East. More than other Arab leaders of his generation, he comes from the Realpolitik school. During the Obama administration, M.B.Z. He tried to establish closer links between the US. UU and Putin, hoping to encourage Moscow to reduce its association with Iran, particularly in Syria. (Like Israel, the US and Saudi Arabia consider Iran their greatest strategic threat, nor did they have confidence in President Obama)
As an incentive for Putin to associate with the Gulf states instead of Iran, USA UU and Saudi Arabia started making billions of dollars in investments in Russia and convened high-level meetings in Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and the Seychelles.
It is not clear if the MBZ pre-selection proposal came from Putin himself, or one of his confidants, or if the Emirati leader had the idea. But the comment suggested that M.B.Z. he believed that turning Putin against Iran would require sanctions for Moscow, a concession that required the support of the US president. If the Hillary Clinton had won the elections, the idea of accepting the Russian aggression in Ukraine would have been unprecedented, current officials and former US officials told me. UU But Trump promised a different approach.
Israeli officials lobbied for a rapprochement between Washington and Moscow shortly after Trump's election victory. In a private meeting during the transition, an assistant told me that Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to the United States and one of the closest confidants of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the Israeli government was encouraging the incoming Trump Administration to Cooperate more closely with Putin, starting in Syria, hoping to convince Moscow to force the Iranians to leave the country, the assistant said.
Like MBZ, Netanyahu made courting Putin a priority, particularly after Russia's military intervention in Syria in 2015. The Israeli leader wanted to make sure that Israeli forces could continue to have access to Syrian airspace, that Russians controlled partially, to prevent the deployment of advanced weapons systems by Iran and its representatives that could threaten the Jewish state. A senior Israeli official declined to comment on Dermer's message, but said that "Israel believes it is possible to obtain a Russian-American agreement in Syria that would push the Iranians," and that doing so "could be the beginning of an improvement in Relations between the United States and Russia in general. "
Separately, a former US official recalled having had a conversation after the inauguration of Trump with an Israeli cabinet minister with close ties to Netanyahu in which the minister He urged the American to the idea of "trading" Ukraine for Syria. "The former official told me:" You can understand why Russia's aid with Syria is a much higher priority for Israel than rolling back the Russian aggression in Ukraine. . But I think it is an important step for Israel to try to convince the United States that the interests of the United States. UU They are well looked after if they look away from the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Of course, Trump may disagree for his own reasons. "
After Trump took office, the idea was raised again, by Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Foreign Minister, and Abdullah bin Zayed , the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates, during a private dinner in March 2017, which included other guests. "Your message was" Why do not we lift Ukrainian sanctions against Russia in exchange for getting the Russians expel Iran from Syria? ", recalled an assistant to the foreign ministers.An official UAE said he did not remember the discussion.The dinner assistant told me:" It was not a test balloon. They were trying to socialize the idea. "
The timing, however, could not have been worse in political terms, current officials and former US officials said. In addition to Mueller's imminent investigation, members of Congress They were pressing at that time to extend the sanctions against Russia, not to reduce them. "Trump told attendees that he was frustrated because he could not progress due to political opposition in Washington: Americans who listened to Israeli, Emirati and Saudi releases of 2016 and early 2017 assumed that the idea was dead.But before the Helsinki summit, Trump began to make statements suggesting he might be willing to reach an agreement with Putin after all.
June 8 Trump called for Russia to be readmitted into the Group of Seven industrialized countries (Russia was expelled four years ago, after being annexed to the Ukrainian region of Crimea). Then, during a dinner at the G-7 summit in Canada, Trump said that Crimea was Russian because the people who lived there spoke Russian. Several weeks later, when asked if reports that he would abandon Washington's long-standing opposition to the annexation of Crimea were true, Trump replied: "We'll have to see"