TEHRAN (Press Shia) – During a private meeting shortly before the November 2016 US election, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, floated to a longtime American interlocutor what sounded, at the time, like an unlikely grand bargain.
The Emirati leader told the American that Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, might be interested in resolving the conflict in Syria in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, The New Yorker reported recently.
Current and former US officials said that bin Zayed, known as MBZ, was not the only leader in the region who favored rapprochement between the former Cold War adversaries. While America’s closest allies in Europe viewed with a sense of dread Trump’s interest in partnering with Putin, three countries that enjoyed unparalleled influence with the incoming Administration—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE —privately embraced the goal.
Officials from the three countries have repeatedly encouraged their American counterparts to consider ending the Ukraine-related sanctions in return for Putin’s help in putting an end to Iran's military advisory presence in Syria.
Experts say that such a deal would be unworkable, even if Trump were interested.
They say Putin has neither the interest nor the ability to pressure Iranian forces to leave Syria. Administration officials have said that Syria and Ukraine will be among the topics 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.
It is unclear whether MBZ’s preselection proposal came from Putin himself or one of his confidants, or whether the Emirati leader came up with the idea. But the comment suggested that MBZ believed that turning Putin against Iran would require sanctions relief for Moscow, a concession that required the support of the American president.
Israeli officials lobbied for rapprochement between Washington and Moscow soon after Trump’s election victory. In a private meeting during the transition, Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to the United States and one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants, said that the Israeli regime was encouraging the incoming Trump Administration to cooperate more closely with Putin, starting in Syria, with the hope of convincing Moscow to push the Iranians to leave the country, an attendee told me.
Like MBZ, Netanyahu made courting Putin a priority, particularly after Russia’s military presence in Syria in 2015 at the request of Syrian government.
Separately, a former US official recalled having a conversation after Trump’s inauguration with an Israeli cabinet minister with close ties to Netanyahu in which the minister pitched the American on the idea of “trading Ukraine for Syria.”
After Trump took office, the idea was raised again, by Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah bin Zayed, the foreign minister of the UAE, during a private March, 2017, dinner that included several other guests.
“Their message was ‘Why don’t we lift the Ukrainian sanctions on Russia in exchange for getting the Russians to push Iran out of Syria,’ ” an attendee recalled the foreign ministers saying. A senior UAE official said that he did not recall the discussion. The dinner attendee said, “It wasn’t a trial balloon. They were trying to socialize the idea.”
The timing, however, could not have been worse politically, current and former US officials said.
On June 8, Trump called for Russia to be readmitted to the Group of Seven industrial nations. (Russia was expelled four years ago, after it annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region.)
Then, during a dinner at the G-7 summit in Canada, Trump reportedly said that Crimea was Russian because the people who lived there spoke Russian. Several weeks later, when asked whether reports that he would drop Washington’s long-standing opposition to the annexation of Crimea were true, Trump responded, “We’re going to have to see.”