U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, center, arrive for a news conference in Helsinki, Finland (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)  

Putin Defies Trump’s Demands to Expel Iran From Syria

(Bloomberg) -- Vladimir Putin is done making concessions to the U.S. over Iran’s presence in Syria.

Having pushed Iranian-backed forces away from the frontier with the Israeli-held Golan Heights in July, the Russian president is defying the Trump administration’s demand to expel Iran completely from Syria after the civil war there winds down. With Washington’s credibility on the ropes both in Moscow and Tehran, and the U.S. eager to end its involvement in Syria, the Russians and Iranians may well prevail.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday urged the U.S. to abandon its demands for Iran to surrender its influence in the region, describing them as “unprofessional and unrealistic.’’

The issue is expected to be a central one when the presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey meet in Tehran on Friday to cement roles in postwar Syria. They’ll also try to work out their disagreement over an impending offensive against the last major opposition bastion in Idlib, which risks sending a new wave of refugees across the Turkish border.

All three powers are under separate U.S. sanctions.

The need to map out postwar spheres of influence comes at a critical juncture in Syria’s civil war. Russia’s intervention in the conflict three years ago turned the tide in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor at a time when he held less than a quarter of his country’s territory. Now, major patrons Moscow and Iran are looking to consolidate gains as the last major battle in Idlib approaches.

Russian warplanes are already bombing Idlib, and Syrian troops have shelled it. Almost 3 million civilians live there, and the prospects for a humanitarian catastrophe are high if the government doesn’t allow an escape route. Trump warned Assad this week against committing a “slaughter” in the northwest province.

With Russia, the American president is holding out incentives, not threats. He’s dangled the prospect of rolling back punitive steps against Russia if he gets what he wants in Syria, but Putin has little reason to trust that, Russian officials say. Even if he did, Iran isn’t ready to back down, though it faces crippling U.S. sanctions after Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal.

Similar Situation

“Russia and Iran are almost in an identical situation,’’ said Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin. “They’re getting demands but are being offered nothing in return.’’

Trump, whose presidency is clouded by Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election, has made countering Iran a key strategic goal. Securing an Iranian exit from Syria would give him much-needed ammunition against critics of his Kremlin outreach.

But with bipartisan consensus on the need to squeeze Russia, Congress is turning up the heat on Moscow, weighing additional sanctions including banning purchases of Russian sovereign debt and cutting off Russian state-run banks from the U.S. financial system.

After a summit in Helsinki in July between Putin and Trump, Russia convinced Iran to pull back its troops and allied militias 85 kilometers (50 miles) from the Israeli-held Golan.

Troop Pullout

To coax Russia into greater concessions, National Security Adviser John Bolton last month raised the prospect of an eventual withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria’s northeast.

An American pullout could only happen when all Iranian fighters, as well as their weapons and militia allies, are also gone, a person familiar with the talks said. The U.S. would also have to be satisfied that Islamic State has been completely crushed in Syria, the person added.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, without mentioning Iran, laid down an additional condition for withdrawing American troops on Aug. 28: the United Nations-led talks in Geneva on a political transition in Syria to loosen Assad’s grip on power must be “making traction.’’

That’s totally unrealistic, said Marianna Belenkaya, a Middle East expert in Moscow. “If Assad takes back Idlib, he will control nearly the entire country apart from some areas, mainly under U.S. protection,’’ she said in a commentary for the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This will make the Syrian regime even less flexible in the Geneva process.”

Deeply Embedded

Making it even harder for the U.S. to achieve its goals is the intertwined relationship between Assad and his Iranian patrons. The Iranians have deeply penetrated the Syrian armed forces, limiting Russia’s ability to use any leverage over Syria, said two people with knowledge of the matter in Moscow.

“It’s in the interest of the Syrian government at the moment for Iranian troops and advisers to be in Syria,’’ said Foad Izadi, a foreign policy specialist at the University of Tehran.

Despite threats of U.S. reprisals against any new Assad chemical attack in Idlib, there’s no sign the U.S. is willing to intervene to reverse the situation on the ground.

“In a war, mere diplomatic language won’t suffice when the other side is determined to use military force,” said Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. “American rhetoric isn’t going to slow down the Russians, Syrians and Iranians for very long.’’

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