Trump and Putin Agree That Iran Needs to Pull Out of Syria, Says U.S. Official

The agreement comes ahead of an upcoming meeting between Trump's national security adviser and senior Russian officials

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, prepare to leave following a news conference in Helsinki, Finland, on Monday, July 16, 2018.

WASHINGTON – Russia and the United States both agree in principle that Iran should take its forces out of Syria, but the Russian government believes it will be a "difficult task" to get the Iranians out of the country, a senior U.S. official told local news outlets on Thursday. The comments were made ahead of an upcoming trip by Trump's National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to Geneva, where he will meet with senior Russian officials. His discussions there will focus on the Iran and Syria issues. 

Israel and the United States have argued for months that Iran needs to take all its forces out of Syria. Iran, however, was an important ally of Russia and of the Assad regime during the Syrian civil war, and it now expects to reap the benefits of its involvement in that war. The Russian position, as presented by the U.S. official on Thursday, is in line with previous reports about discussions between Israel and Russian officials.

Russia has so far promised Israel only to hold Iran's forces at a distance of 85 Kilometers away from the Israeli-Syrian border. Haaretz reported on Thursday that the Iranians have kept that promise so far, with one important exception - the area of Damascus. Iranian activity continues around the Syrian capital, which is located within the distance range mentioned by Russia. 

"The Russians don't have the will to take Iran completely out of Syria. The Iranians have a significant presence in Syria, and Russia has no incentive to try and force them out, something they may not even be able to achieve," said Ariane Tabatabai, an expert on Iran at the Rand Corporation. Tabatabai, who recently published a book on Iran's relations with Russia and China, told Haaretz that Iran is eyeing economic sectors in Syria and wants to profit from the country's reconstruction process. "It's hard to see them going anywhere," she explained.