Vladimir Putin steps up pressure on Joe Biden over troops in Syria

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 13, 2021 - AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Kremlin in Moscow on September 13, 2021 - AFP

Vladimir Putin has said that American troops are preventing the emergence of peace in Syria, calling their presence “a violation of international law” in remarks that lay down a challenge to the Biden administration after the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Russian president hit out at the last US military deployment in a Middle Eastern warzone in a rare meeting in Moscow on Monday night with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad,

Mr Putin was referring to roughly 900 American soldiers stationed in eastern Syria supporting Kurdish-led forces against the Islamic State group, and Turkish forces protecting a buffer zone along Syria’s northern border.

Unlike Russian troops – who are there at the invitation of Damascus – American and Turkish forces have neither permission from the Syrian government, nor a mandate from the United Nations Security Council. The troops are instead there to protect the US from the threat of the Islamic State (IS).

“This clearly violates international law and doesn't allow you to make maximum efforts to consolidate the country,” Mr Putin was quoted as telling Mr Assad, according to a statement released by the Kremlin.

“Only a consolidation of all forces in Syria will allow the country to get on its feet and start steady development, moving forward,” he said.

Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015 helped tip the balance of power in favour of President Assad at a time when his forces were close to defeat.

But while Mr Assad has emerged victorious from the decade-old war – winning a fourth presidential term in elections described as neither free nor fair by Western governments earlier this year – Russia has yet to see a return on its investment.

In the wake of the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr Putin may now be looking to focus attention on the ambiguity of the US presence in Syria, according to Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House,

“Putin will have taken heart at Biden's message on serving only vital US interests and will likely calculate that Syria no longer, if ever, fitted that category,” he said.

President Joe Biden pulled US forces from Afghanistan as part of a plan to pivot towards countering the growing influence of China, raising questions about the future of American troops in Iraq and Syria.

The United State justifies its presence in Syria as necessary for self-defence against the Islamic State group, arguing that Damascus and its allies are unwilling or unable to counter the threat.

But former US president Donald Trump at times indicated that US forces would remain to prevent Iran or Damascus from taking over areas that had been retaken from IS, while other times claiming to be withdrawing from Syria entirely.

The Russian leader may go further in seeking to gauge the Biden’s administration’s ongoing interest in the region, Mr Quilliam said. The last of America's 2,500 troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave by the end of the year.

“Given Putin's track record of testing US appetite for push back, notably in Crimea, we can expect him to test the resolve of Biden's commitment to allies in Syria by fomenting clashes with American troops on the ground,” he predicted.

Barack Obama's former ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, has criticised the deployment. “I don't think it's worth it,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Islamic Stare “is largely contained and not in a position to threaten the U.S. homeland or even to send fighters to Europe,“ he said.

Monday’s meeting between the Russian and Syrian leaders was a rare trip abroad for Mr Assad and his first public visit to Moscow since 2015. The two allies held a summit in Damascus last January and also met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in 2017.

After the meeting between the two leaders in the Kremlin on Monday, several members of Mr Putin's entourage tested positive for Covid and the Russian leader went into self-isolation.

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