Since the Helsinki summit was billed to discuss Syria, there was hectic diplomatic activity from both Israel and Iran prior to the summit. Israeli PM Netanyahu met President Putin in Russia and spoke on the telephone to President Trump. His concern was to rid Syria of Iranian presence, in return for which he was reported to have promised to accept continuation of the Assad government. Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign affairs adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, also visited Moscow to seek safeguarding of Iran’s interests at the summit.
President Trump reflected the Israeli concern at the press conference. For Russia, getting Iran to withdraw from Syria was neither feasible nor desirable. The eventual agreement was to establish a military disengagement between the Israeli-occupied and Syrian-controlled territory on the Golan Heights, keeping out Iranian military presence. With tacit US acquiescence, the Syrians moved swiftly against rebels in southwestern and southern Syria, including the outfits which had reportedly been supported by the Israelis to keep the Iranians out of the Golan Heights. By month-end, the Russia-backed Syrian army had regained control of virtually the entire province of Quneitra on the Golan Heights and the provinces bordering Jordan, despite a strong terrorist attack by rebels in As-suweida Province killing over 200 civilians. The US protested, in Secretary Pompeo’s telephone call to FM Lavrov on July 21, against Russia’s violation of its commitment to the de-escalation in southwestern Syria. A Russian MFA release said Russia had to take military action, since the Americans had not fulfilled their commitment to get the “moderate” Syrian opposition to disarm.
How Russia-US interaction will develop further in Syria remains unclear, given the divergence of their interests (and those of their respective allies).
July 30, 2018