01:15 GMT23 February 2020
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    As presidents Putin and Trump meet on Monday one of the key issues will be Syria and Iran's presence there - that's also a number one priority for Israel, which has said that it would not tolerate any pro-Iranian presence in Syria. However, the Russian Foreign Minister has said it would be unrealistic to ask Iran to withdraw all of its troops.

    Sputnik has discussed Israel's policy towards Iran's forces in Syria with Professor Meir Litvak, director of the Alliance Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

    Sputnik: What is Tehran's position when it comes to withdrawing its troops from Syria? How does Iran benefit from its military presence in this country anyway?

    Meir Litvak: Tehran's official position is that it is in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government and that it will not withdraw its forces unless the Syrian government requests it to do so. This is the official position and in my view, the real position is that Iran will refuse to withdraw its forces from Syria unless it has no other choice. Iran is stationed in Syria I would say for three major reasons.

    First, Syria is crucial conduit to transfer weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hezbollah is the major long arm of Iran in the Middle East.

    Secondly, by having its troops in Syria Iran can threaten Israel from Syria, both in a way to alleviate possible pressure or threat from Israel on Hezbollah and also to deter Israel from doing anything to Iran.

    READ MORE: Israel is Determined to Prevent Lebanonization of Syria — Scholar

    And thirdly, Iran would like to start a low-intensity war of attrition against Israel from the Syrian border and possibly also like to build missile bases in Syria to threaten Israel. So Iran has strategic reasons to be in Syria, to expand its original influence and consolidate its position as an important Middle Eastern power in the Middle East and also to threaten Israel.

    Sputnik: What's your opinion with regard to the impact that could be proposed by these US sanctions against countries that are buying Iranian oil? And what effect could it have on Iran's economy with that?

    Meir Litvak: We can already see an effect on Iran's economy. Major foreign companies announced that they will withdraw their investments or will not cooperate with Iran. For example, the major French oil company "Total" has ceased its operations in Iran. The largest bank in Japan has announced that it will no longer work with Iran and many other companies.

    So it will certainly have a major effect on Iran and you can already see it, by the way, with the decline, I would say almost collapse, of the Iranian currency which went down from 40,000 rials per dollar last year to 90,000 rials per dollar. It's lost more than half of its value. Clearly, there is a fear in Iran that Iran will not be able to export its oil, already leading to threats by the Iranians that if Iran is not be able to export its oil, no country will be able to do so from the Persian Gulf.

    READ MORE: Syrian Army's Latest Gains Elicit Rehashed Western Media Allegations — Analyst

    So I believe it will have a major effect. Of course, we don't know the full effect because it's unclear what Russian, Chinese, and Indian companies will do. For instance, it is clear that China intends to continue its relations with Iran. Iranians claim that Russia promised to invest $50 billion in the Iranian economy. We will have to see if that will happen.

    India is trying to extract better trade conditions from Iran in return for purchasing Iranian oil. So the whole picture is not clear yet, but it's certain that the sanctions have already had an effect on the Iranian economy.

    Sputnik: Is it realistically possible to prohibit Iran from deploying military installations in Syria, what's your take on that one?

    Meir Litvak: It all depends on, I would say, the international consensus. Clearly, a lot depends on the Russian position. If Russia will exert pressure on Iran, either to reduce or to completely eliminate its military presence in Syria, it would be very difficult for Iran to continue to do so. If on the other hand, Russia will agree to some Iranian presence, but only a limited one, I think the Iranians will have to comply.

    READ MORE: Syrian Forces Ward Off Attack on Tiyas Military Base in Homs — Reports

    Clearly, Israeli-American pressure alone is not enough unless it is also accompanied by military action which I don't think is likely in the near future. It depends a lot again on the joint diplomatic pressure of Russia, US and other countries on Iran, and it also depends on the economic situation in Iran. If Iran will feel that staying in Syria harms its economy to an unacceptable level then Iran may agree to withdraw its forces. If not, then Iran will probably continue, will assist on maintaining its presence in Syria.

    Sputnik: Who could replace Iranian troops when it comes to fighting ISIS* and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq? We know that once these conflicts do come to an end there's generally a vacuum in these countries and that usually allows these militant Muslim groups to influx these particular areas and further destabilize the areas, what's your opinion with regard to that?

    Meir Litvak: ISIS is finished as a major military force both in Syria and Iraq. There's one thing, let's say, if continuing military presence to fight such extremist movements, which you can say is legitimate, but you don't fight this extremist movement by staging your militia on the Israeli border — this is one thing — you don't fight this extremist movement by establishing missile bases in Syria.

    READ MORE: United States and Iran Unlikely to Face Off in Strait of Hormuz — Journalist

    So I would distinguish between some required presence to continue to fight these terrorist organizations that are basically losing their force and power in Syria. They're basically defeated, they maintain some small, low-scale terrorist activity or guerrilla activity in Syria, and other military presence; again some of the Shia militias affiliated with Iran openly declare their desire to confront Israel in the Golan Heights. This is not fighting ISIS, this is something else.

    *Daesh (also known as ISIS/ISIL/IS) is a terrorist group banned in Russia

    The views expressed in this article are solely those of Meir Litvak and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Sputnik.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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