Iran’s involvement in Syria is expected to come up when President Trump talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. Ahead of the meeting, National Security Advisor John Bolton linked the continued presence of U.S. troops there with the “menace” posed by Iran in the region.
Bolton was asked on ABC News’ this week whether Trump plans to offer Putin, as a concession, the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Syria – where Russian and Iranian forces are also deployed, in support of President Bashar al-Assad
“The whole situation in Syria will be a discussion that the two leaders will have, in large part because it’s getting more serious,” he replied.
“But 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 added.
ISIS’s “caliphate” has all but been dismantled in both Syria and Iraq, as a result of offensives carried out variously by a U.S.-led coalition, U.S. Arab and Kurdish allies, Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed militias, and the Assad regime and its Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah allies.
But the second part of the administration’s justification for the U.S. troop presence as cited by Bolton – the “Iranian menace” – persists.
There are about 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, including special operations personnel who were deployed to help U.S. allies fighting against ISIS. Last April, Trump indicated he wanted to pull the troops out soon, citing progress against the terrorists.
Since then, however, the administration has escalated a campaign aimed at pressuring Iran and highlighting what it calls its “malign” behavior in the region, including its involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.
The presence of Iranian forces in Syria is of particular concern to Israel, the Tehran regime’s arch-enemy. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in recent days has spoken with both Trump and Putin about the matter, in the hopes they will agree to end the presence of Iranian forces or their proxies near Israeli territory.
During a brief visit to Moscow last week, Netanyahu urged the Russians – not for the first time – to get the Iranians out of Syria.
“Our view that Iran needs to leave Syria is well-known; it is not new to you,” he told Putin, who according to a Kremlin transcript of their remarks before the meeting, replied, “We are aware of your concerns. Let us discuss them in detail.”
Then on Saturday, Netanyahu and Trump spoke by phone. Reporting back during a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said they discussed “Syria and Iran first and foremost” – issues which would, he said, “come up at the presidents’ summit in Helsinki.”
“I thanked President Trump for his strong policy against Iran because since this policy has been taken, we have seen a great effect on – and inside – Iran,” he said.
Netanyahu added that Trump had “clearly reiterated his commitment to the security of Israel.”
Israeli has on a number of occasions during the drawn-put civil war carried out military strikes against targets inside Syria, although they have mostly been installations linked to Iran or its proxy Hezbollah. Last week, however, Israel shot down a Syrian drone which it said had breached Israeli airspace, and on Sunday Damascus accused it of an airstrike against a military site near Aleppo.
Iran, meanwhile, has been pursuing diplomatic efforts of its own in the run-up to the Putin-Trump summit.
A day after Netanyahu met with Putin, the Russian leader hosted Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Iranian foreign minister who is supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s advisor of international affairs.
The subject of their talks was not disclosed, although at a public event in Moscow later Velayati seemed unwilling to give any leeway on the question of Iran’s ongoing involvement in Syria.
“We came [to Syria] not at the invitation of the United States, and we will not leave because of its threats,” Velayati said at the Valdai Discussion Club, an international dialogue forum backed by the Kremlin.
Iran will maintain its presence in Syria, despite the “destabilizing” presence of American and French troops there, the Valdai Club quoted him as saying.
Velayati also charged that if Iran and Russia stopped providing military support to the Assad regime, then terrorists backed by the U.S. and Israel would return on Syria.
In Tehran the Kayhan newspaper, whose editor is appointed by the supreme leader, published an article on Trump’s current international trip. It predicted that Putin in Helsinki would not yield “to any outlandish demands regarding Syria, where the illegal American military presence has no chance of survival.”
Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov – who along with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to take part in Monday’s summit talks – confirmed to a Russian business newspaper that the conflict in Syria would feature on the agenda.