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Syria deal requires Iranian pullback from Iraq and Lebanon, U.S. and Israel tell Russia

From (L-R): Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

During a trilateral summit in Jerusalem last month, the U.S. and Israel told Russia that any deal on the future of Syria must include an Iranian military withdrawal not just from that country but also from Lebanon and Iraq, U.S. officials who were involved in the discussions tell me.

Why it matters: Israel and the Trump administration are concerned that a future deal in Syria could export the Iranian problem to Iraq and Lebanon.

A possible deal on Syria was the focus of the talks held 3 weeks ago in Jerusalem. National security adviser John Bolton was joined by Meir Ben-Shabbat and Nikolai Patrushev, his counterparts from Israel and Russia, respectively.

  • The Russians were seeking U.S. and Israeli agreement over the stabilization of the Bashar al-Assad regime. They also hope the U.S. will encourage Western countries to help fund the reconstruction of Syria.
  • Russia is allied with Iran in Syria and has been unable or unwilling (or both) to compel Iranian forces to leave the country. The Russians claim to have pushed Iran-backed forces 60 miles from Israel's border, but Israeli officials say the groups still operate in the area.

U.S. officials tell me Bolton and Ben-Shabbat told Patrushev that the pullout of Iranian forces from Syria was a prerequisite for any deal, but insufficient.

  • They said any deal must address the Iranian military presence in Lebanon — mainly precision missile factories built to arm Hezbollah.
  • The U.S. and Israel told Russia such a deal should also address Iran's presence in Iraq — mainly when it comes to arming Shiite militias with long-range rockets capable of reaching Israel.

What to watch: Bolton and Ben-Shabbat told Patrushev that as a first stage, the Russians could focus on pressing the Iranians to take all of their heavy weaponry — mainly missiles and rockets — out of Syria.

“Bolton made it clear to Patrushev that, in any case, Russia is the one that needs to take the first step regarding the Iranian presence in Syria — and only then the U.S. could give them things they want."
— U.S. officials

Where things stand: The Russians gave the Iranians public backing during and after the summit.

  • Last week, Vladimir Putin sent his Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, to Tehran to reassure the Iranians and brief Iranian national security adviser Ali Shamkhani on the results of the summit.
  • However, Israeli and U.S. officials say the Iranians are very concerned that Israel, the U.S. and Russia could strike a deal on Syria at their expense.