Trump, Macron discuss countering ‘malign’ Iranian influence

US President Donald Trump discussed increasing cooperation in the ongoing crises in Syria and Iraq in a telephone call with his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on Friday.

The two leaders also spoke about “countering Iranian malign influence,” according to a readout of the call provided by the White House, which gave no further details.

Last month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also discussed curbing Iran with Macron, criticizing the Syria cease-fire deal brokered by the United States and Russia, saying it does not sufficiently address Iranian military ambitions in the area.

Placing himself at odds with Trump on the issue, Netanyahu told journalists in Paris that the agreement perpetuates Iranian plans to set up a disruptive long-term presence on Israel’s northern border, something he has repeatedly vowed that the Jewish state won’t tolerate.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) waves as he stands next to French President Emmanuel Macron (R) upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, on July 15, 2017 ahead of their meeting. (AFP PHOTO / GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT)

The ceasefire, announced after a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg last month, was the first initiative by the Trump administration in collaboration with Russia to bring some stability to war-torn Syria.

“Israel is aware of Iran’s expansionist goals in Syria,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

The prime minister said that while the plan aims to keep Iran 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from the Israeli border, it did not address Iran’s plans to cement its presence in Syria, which, he said, included the establishment of a naval and air force bases.

The premier’s comments Sunday were his first remarks explicitly condemning the ceasefire, after having gingerly endorsed the deal as it came into effect earlier this month.

Apprehensions over Iranian designs in the region were stoked by recent movements of Shiite Muslim militias — loyal to Iran and fighting alongside Syrian government forces — toward Jordan’s border with Syria, and to another strategic area in the southeast, close to where the two countries meet Iraq.

The advances are part of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s push to regain territory from rebel groups, some backed by the West, in the southern Daraa province, and from Islamic State extremists in the southeast, near the triangle with Iraq.

But Syria’s neighbors suspect that Iran is pursuing a broader agenda, including carving out a land route through Syria that would create a territorial continuum from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon.

Iran launches a ballistic missile at Islamic State targets in eastern Syria on June 18, 2017. (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps)

Ceasefires have repeatedly collapsed in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, and it’s not clear if this one will last. The southern Syria truce is separate from so far unsuccessful efforts by Russia, Turkey and Iran to set up “de-escalation zones” in Syria, including in the south.

Israel is expected to watch for truce violations.

Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran to set up a permanent presence in Syria. Israel has carried out a number of airstrikes in Syria against suspected shipments of “game-changing” weapons bound for Hezbollah.

In the telephone call, Trump and Macron also discussed Venezuela and North Korea.

On the issue of Venezuela, Trump and Macron agreed that the regime of President Nicolas Maduro must “restore the rights of the Venezuelan people,” the statement added.

Venezuela’s controversial new constituent assembly, packed with allies of the unpopular Maduro, held its inaugural session on Friday amid widespread international criticism of its legitimacy.

Trump and Macron also discussed matters of mutual interest on North Korea, and “reaffirmed the importance of all sides implementing the Minsk agreements to reach a peaceful settlement in Ukraine,” the statement said.

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