Vladimir Putin has said American troops are a barrier to peace in Syria, calling their presence there “a violation of international law” in what is seen as a challenge to the Joe Biden administration after its Afghan withdrawal.
The Russian president hit out at the last US military deployment in a Middle East war zone in a rare meeting in Moscow with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad. Mr Putin was referring to roughly 900 US soldiers stationed in eastern Syria to support Kurdish-led forces, fighting the Islamic State group, as well as Turkish forces protecting a buffer zone on Syria’s northern border.
Russian troops in Syria are there at the invitation of President Assad’s regime but the American and Turkish forces have neither permission from Damascus to be there nor any mandate from the Security Council of the United Nations.
“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 in a Kremlin statement released after their meeting on Monday. “Only a consolidation of all forces in Syria will allow the country to get on its feet and start steady development,” he said.
Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war in 2015 helped tip the balance in favour of Mr Assad at a time when his forces were close to defeat.
Mr Assad has since emerged victorious from the decade-old war and has won a fourth presidential term after elections that were described as neither free nor fair by Western governments earlier this year.
After the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Mr Putin may now be looking to focus attention on the ambiguity of the US presence in Syria, said Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at the Chatham House think tank.
“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.
Mr Biden pulled US forces from Afghanistan as part of a plan to pivot to counter China’s growing influence and it has raised questions over the future of the US military in Iraq and Syria.
The US justifies its presence in Syria as necessary for self-defence against Islamic State (IS), arguing that Damascus and its allies are unwilling or unable to counter the radical Islamist threat.
Former US president Donald Trump had at times indicated that American forces would remain to prevent Iran or Damascus from taking over areas that had been retaken from IS, while at other times he claimed to be withdrawing from Syria entirely.
Mr Putin may now go further in seeking to gauge the Biden 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,” he said.
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 State “is largely contained and not in a position to threaten the US homeland or even send fighters to Europe”, he said.
The 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.
Later, it emerged several members of the Russian entourage tested positive for Covid-19 and Mr Putin went into self-isolation.