ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Russian troops are on the move in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Saudi Arabia last week. And tomorrow, he hosts Turkey's president on Russia's Black Sea coast. This all points to a larger trend in the Middle East. Putin wants to expand Russia's role in the region, while President Trump says the U.S. must scale back.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Where is an agreement that said we have to stay in the Middle East for the rest of humanity, for the rest of civilization to protect the Kurds? It never said that.
SHAPIRO: That was Trump speaking at the White House today.
To break this all down, we are joined by NPR's Greg Myre, who's here in the studio. Hey, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: OK. So Vladimir Putin's many moves in the Middle East include an invitation to Turkey's president to meet tomorrow. What do you expect to happen there?
MYRE: Well, I think the first thing we'll be looking for is to see if Putin can do something that Trump couldn't. Trump was accused of giving Turkey the green light to enter Syria. Will Vladimir Putin be giving him the red light and say, stop; don't go any further? They're on opposite sides there, so that's going to be a big question.
But this is a volatile, unstable moment. This five-day cease-fire that was worked out last week ends tomorrow. So we'll be hitting this sort of artificial deadline. And these are two countries that aren't natural partners, Russia and Turkey. You know, Russia wants to preserve the Syrian president, the Syrian regime. Turkey, for a long time, wanted to oust him. But they do have one common interest. They're both happy to see the United States on the sidelines.
SHAPIRO: As Russia's influence in the region grows, is the U.S. - and the Trump administration, specifically - comfortable being on the sidelines?
MYRE: Well, they seem so so far. President Trump said this cease-fire seems to basically be holding. There's no U.S. troops in harm's way. And he's casting this as part of this larger U.S. effort to get troops out of endless wars in the Middle East.
And there is broad support in the U.S. to end these wars, but there's a lot of criticism about the way it's being done. It's coming from ex-military commanders. It's coming from Republicans. They're saying that the president is acting impulsively, abandoning allies, giving oxygen to the Islamic State. The president seems to be holding his ground. He's talking about, maybe we'll leave a few troops to protect oil there, but still maintaining that troops need to get out.
SHAPIRO: Can you say more broadly what Vladimir Putin's strategy in the Middle East is?
MYRE: Well, he wants to reinsert Russia as a counterweight to the U.S., and he keeps filling these voids left by the U.S. I mean, we saw this in literal form last week when the U.S. abandoned a base, and Russian troops moved right in. He has used Syria as a way to get back in the Middle East, sending troops there to support Bashar Assad. And as we noted, he's developed relationships throughout the region with Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran - very different cast of characters. And he's got a weak hand to play, but he's making Russia relevant again.
SHAPIRO: And while U.S. troops are pulling out of northern Syria, they are not headed home, despite what the president says. There's still a substantial U.S. presence in the region. Is it clear what the Trump administration is doing in the broader Middle East?
MYRE: It really isn't. This is part of this confusion we're seeing. So we're hearing that these troops pulling out of Syria are actually just going to go cross the border into western Iraq. And the Defense Secretary Mark Esper was in Afghanistan, and then we find out that the U.S. has withdrawn 2,000 troops recently in Afghanistan. He's now in Saudi Arabia, where the U.S. is sending more troops in. So these troops are being shuffled all around, but it's not exactly clear to what end.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Thank you.
MYRE: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.