- President Donald Trump may have a chance to pull the US out of Syria now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on Iran to move out its forces as well.
- Trump has long wanted to pull the US out of Syria, but likely couldn’t because he’d be forfeiting the country to the same Iranian influence he hopes to counter.
- Putin looks to have turned his back on Iran, and has asked them to leave Syria.
President Donald Trump’s administration has been puzzling for some time over a vital question – how to pull the US out of Syria without ceding the region to Iran.
But now it looks like an unlikely figure, Russian President Vladimir Putin, has presented a solution.
After withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear deal, a move that largely isolated the US’s Iran policy from the policies of other US allies, Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, laid out a unilateral list of demands for Tehran.
Among the demands, which critics mocked as a pipe dream, was for Iran to pull its militias out of Syria.
Iran has about 70,000 official uniformed and unofficially aligned militia fighters in Syria and a massive reported arsenal of over 100,000 missiles there. Iran’s forces hope to reach Lebanon to support Hezbollah, an anti-Israel Shia Muslim militia that holds power there.
Even before Pompeo’s speech, the Trump administration had announced its intentions to shut out Iran in Syria.
Israel, predictably, refuses to let Iran creep through the fog of the Syrian war to its borders, and has hammered Iran’s forces there with a continuous barrage of airstrikes. Israel has appeared to strike Iranian targets at will in Syria and has suffered minimal loses and blowback as a result.
In doing so, Israel has destroyed several Russian-made air defence systems and trampled over Syria’s airspace. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Putin before major battles over Syria, and has seemingly gained his blessing in striking Iran.
But on Saturday, Putin gave more than a quiet blessing, and outright called for Iranian and all foreign militias to leave Syria.
Since Russia entered the Syrian conflict in late 2015, Syrian President Bashar Assad has beaten back the rebel and Islamist forces that threatened his grip on power. In the last few months, the remaining bits of opposition have largely collapsed.
Now, Putin says its time for US, Turkish, and even Iranian forces to go as Syria seeks a political settlement.
Bring home the troops
While Putin calling on US forces to leave the Middle East isn’t new, it’s novel that he would tell Iran, his ally, to abandon its foreign policy goal of establishing influence from Tehran to Beirut.
Iran responded angrily, with its foreign ministry spokesperson saying “no one can force Iran to do anything,” the Times of Israel noted.
But Iran is getting consistently rocked by Israeli airstrikes in Syria. Russia has refused to provide advanced missile defences to Syria to protect Iran, and short of unleashing Hezbollah for full-on war, it has few options.
If Iran does eventually cede to Putin and Trump’s demands and back out of Syria, it will provide the US a strong inflection point on which it can leave the country, having handily defeated ISIS there.
So the Trump policy that seemed like a pipe dream to some might just come true after strong Israeli opposition and Putin turning his back on Iran.
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