Can Donald Trump Convince Vladimir Putin to Turn Against Iran? Syria War to Be Discussed at U.S.-Russia Summit

During an upcoming one-on-one meeting, President Donald Trump is expected to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to kick Iranian forces out of Syria, national security adviser John Bolton said Sunday.

Trump and Putin will meet in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, and the two men will likely speak at length about the ongoing conflict in Syria, Bolton said in a televised interview. "There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran which would be a significant step forward," he told CBS's show Face the Nation.

Russian troops are currently helping prop up Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, who has been fighting armed insurgents in a bloody civil war that has lasted since 2011, killing hundreds of thousands and forcing almost 6 million people to flee the country for safety. Iranian militias allied with Assad are also currently operating throughout the country. Bolton signaled Sunday that Iran is a bigger priority for the U.S. administration than the removal of Assad, who has been accused of bombing and attacking his own people with chemical weapons.

Russia has maintained a friendly relationship with Tehran, and many analysts say Russia and Iran had planned to divide the country into spheres of influence when the fighting dies down. Russia would like to maintain its military bases in Syria while Iran has indicated that it plans to invest in a post-war Damascus.

But recently, Iran's bitter adversary Israel has been pressuring Russia to convince Tehran to move its militias out of the country. Reports recently suggested that Israel and Russia had struck a deal to move Iranian militias around 15 miles away from the border separating Syria from Israel. The government in Israel views Tehran as an existential threat, and recently began launching strikes against Iranian infrastructure in Syria.

Russia allegedly agreed to move the Iranian militias away from the border with Israel in order to prevent a conflict from breaking out between Israeli troops and Iranian fighters—an event Moscow said could compromise Assad's military advantage. Some reports, however, claimed that Iran's militias had managed to skirt the agreement by dressing up in the uniforms of pro-Assad Syrian fighters. Officials linked to Tehran have also said Iran's troops will not withdraw from Syria because they have permission from Assad to operate in the country. Still, Russia has enough influence with Assad that the country could play a key role in pressuring the Syrian regime to abandon its alliance with Tehran.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, has taken a strong anti-Iran stance similar to that of its ally Israel. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement in early May, which had agreed to lift sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Bolton is famously hawkish on Iran, and has been linked to groups that advocate regime change in the country.

In this context, it is likely Trump will also broach the issue of Iran's presence in Syria when he meets with Putin in July. Putin, meanwhile, is also expected to ask the U.S. to remove the around 2,000 troops it has stationed in Syria and give up control of a key military base in Tanf, Syria.

Some analysts, however, say that Moscow is unlikely to honor any deals Putin makes with Trump. Russia recently violated a ceasefire negotiated with the U.S. in Damascus, and began bombing rebel positions in the so-called de-escalation zone in Southern Syria.