(July 16, 2018 / JNS) U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin just concluded a bilateral summit in Helsinki, Finland, that proved to be one of the most widely anticipated meetings in years—or, at least, since the meeting with North Korea. While the discussions centered on relations with Europe and the United States, a topic that also took high priority was the ongoing civil war in Syria.
Over the last month, the Syrian regime—backed by Russian, Iran, Hezbollah and Shi’a militias—has launched a massive operation in its south to defeat one of the remaining rebel strongholds in the country. Not only has the operation, spurred on by Syrian President Bashar Assad, led to a massive humanitarian disaster, but it has brought Iran and its terror proxies even closer to the Israeli border.
The issue of Iran’s presence has been a growing concern for Israel and the United States. Israel has raised alarms over Iran and its Shi’ite terror proxies establishing a permanent presence in post-war Syria, especially along the demilitarized Israeli-Syrian border.
Since the beginning of the year, Israeli and Iranian forces have come close to a full-scale conflict over Iranian provocations along the Israeli-Syrian border and even into Israeli territory itself. In February, an Iranian drone was shot down by Israel after it crossed into Israeli airspace. This led to retaliatory Israeli airstrikes inside of Syria that saw an Israeli F-16 shot down.
Tensions again threatened to boil over in May, when Israel carried out its largest airstrikes in Syria in decades against Iranian infrastructure in the country.
Since then, the Israeli Air Force has continued smaller-scale airstrikes in Syria in response to Syrian or Iranian provocations, as well as targeted Iranian efforts to transfer weapons into Syria to bolster pro-Iranian militias and Hezbollah.
But Tehran has dismissed any suggestion that it will leave.
“We came [to Syria] not at the invitation of the United States, and we will not leave because of its threats,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a close adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said at the Valdai Discussion Club last week while visiting Moscow.
At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Putin three times in the last six months to press him on the issue. Last week at a meeting in Moscow, Netanyahu firmly told Putin that “Iran needs to leave Syria.”
Then on Saturday, Netanyahu spoke with Trump by phone, saying the topics discussed were “Syria and Iran, first and foremost.”
Following the Putin-Trump meeting, Netanyahu issued a statement saying that he “commends” the commitment by President Trump for Israel’s security during the summit. He also said he “appreciates the security coordination” between Israel and Russia and the “clear position expressed by President Putin regarding the need to uphold the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria.”
U.S. says for time being, it’s staying put in Syria
Nevertheless, while both Israeli and American leaders seem to be focused on discussing with Putin on Iran’s presence in Syria, it remains unclear the extent that Putin is able or even willing to force Iran out of the country.
Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert of Russia’s policy towards the Middle East at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS that Putin does not have the leverage or desire to force Iran out.
“I don’t think he [Putin] can get Iran out. Even if Putin wanted to do this, which is doubtful at the very least, Putin doesn’t really have any leverage over Iran to do this. Putin wants to appear as a peacemaker, a mediator; he would like to be elevated to this role. And then he will play all sides, to elevate himself,” she said.
According to Borshchevskaya, true peace and stability in Syria would undermine Putin’s ability to stay as the chief mediator; therefore, any Russian promises have to be met with skepticism.
“We already saw what appeared, at the very least, [to be] a superficial withdrawal from southern Syria, she said. “If anything, it appeared to be a deception because these people appeared to just switch into Syrian uniforms.”
And, she added, “Lavrov already said it’s impossible to get Iran to completely withdraw from Syria.”
Reports in recent weeks have continually suggested that Russia has been working to remove Iranian from along the Israeli-Syrian border and to create a buffer zone. But Israel is still demanding a full withdrawal.
Vice Admiral John Bird, USN (ret.), who currently serves on JINSA’s Gemunder Center Iran Task Force, told JNS that Putin is concerned with anything that can jeopardize his country’s strategic position in Syria.
“Assad is reconquering the country, the world has seen Russia stand by its ally and bolster its prestige, and Russia also has secured permanent naval/air bases—all at relatively little cost to itself. Iran’s entrenchment in Syria could risk everything Putin has gained,” he said.
“However, if Iran and Israel get into a full-blown war that potentially threatens the Assad regime and/or forces Russia to get involved,” then this could jeopardize that situation, he said.
For its part, the United States has limited leverage in Syria. The American involvement in Syria has mainly been focused on the eastern half of the country, where the Islamic State terror group established the capital of its so-called caliphate in the Syrian city of Raqaa. While a U.S.-led coalition have largely dismantled this caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State threat still remains.
Nevertheless, National Security Advisor John Bolton said in recent days that the United States will remain in Syria as long as the threat from the Islamic State and Iran continue.
“I think the president’s made it clear that we are there until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed, and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East,” Bolton told ABC News.
In the past, Trump has suggested pulling all U.S. forces out of Syria, which has led to some concern among observers that it would lead the United States to have even less sway over Middle East regional developments.
Bird said that Trump needs to “develop a position of strength” in order to properly negotiate with Putin on Syria.
“Putin likely would love to continue being the irreplaceable diplomat that arbitrates between Israel and Iran, but Trump must convey to Putin that all of this could be lost if Israel has to go to war to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.”
Similarly, Borshchevskaya said that instead of reaching a deal on Syria, Trump should make it clear to Putin that America is not leaving Syria.
“Trump should assure Putin that the U.S. is not leaving Syria, and that the U.S. will push back against Iran militarily on the region,” she said. “What Putin wants is to see America retreat; it is a strong American presence that will deter Putin and Iran as well.”