Russian President Vladimir Putin told the United States that his country would like Iranian forces to withdraw from Syria but cannot force them out, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser said on Wednesday, despite Israeli calls for Iran to leave immediately.
Like Iran, Russia is providing military backing to Present Bashar Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war. Israel repeatedly has warned it will not tolerate the military presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria and has carried out airstrikes against Iranian targets.
In a Wednesday press conference with Israeli and US reporters in Jerusalem, John Bolton said Putin had said he would like Iran to withdraw from Syria, “but he said, ‘I can’t do it myself.'”
Bolton, who is wrapping up a three-day trip to Israel, posited Putin meant that “US and Russian cooperation might be sufficient” to push for an Iranian withdrawal. “That is something that I will follow up with my Russian counterpart tomorrow,” he said.
Bolton also said that the Trump administration was not seeking to oust Iran’s leadership with its re-imposition of sanctions on Tehran. “Regime change in Iran is not American policy but what we want is massive change in the regime’s behavior,” he said.
In an interview published by the Reuters news agency earlier Wednesday, Bolton said that Putin, who met with US President Donald Trump in Helsinki on July 16, had told US officials that Moscow could not compel the Iranians to cede to such a demand.
“But he also told us that his interest and Iran’s were not exactly the same. So we’re obviously going to talk to him about what role they can play,” Bolton told Reuters.
He is slated to leave Israel on Wednesday afternoon for Geneva, where he will meet with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev.
Asked what the Trump administration’s priorities in Syria were, Bolton told Reuters that the US aimed “to finish the destruction of the ISIS territorial caliphate and deal with the continuing threat of ISIS terrorism,” and, using notably less decisive language, “to worry about the presence of Iranian militias and regular forces.”
He did, however, insist that despite Putin’s hesitation, the removal of Iranian troops was a necessary step to end Syria’s bloody civil war that raged for seven years.
“We’re going see what we and others can agree in terms of resolving the conflict in Syria. But the one prerequisite there is the withdrawal of all Iranian forces back in Iran,” Bolton said.
Last month Israel rejected a Russian proposal to keep Iranian forces in Syria 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from Israel’s northern border, a senior Israeli official said moments after a meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded in Jerusalem.
The official said Israel was sticking to its demand that Iran not be allowed any military foothold in Syria and insisted that all long-range missiles be removed from the war-torn country along with any factories producing precision-guided missiles there.
Bolton, in his press conference, called Israeli strikes on Iranian weapon convoys in Syria “a completely legitimate act of self defense” but would not commit to similar US strikes on Iranian targets to distance their forces from the Israeli border.
Instead, he threatened the Syrian regime with US strikes only if it was found to have again used chemical weapons. In April 2017 and again in April this year, the US targeted a range of Syrian military targets in response to reported use of chemical weapons on the civilian population.
“We now see plans for the Syrian regime to resume offensive in Idlib and we are obviously concerned that Assad may use chemical weapons again,” Bolton said of the rebel-held city in the north of the country. “But so there is no confusion — if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons, we will respond… There is no ambiguity in the US position on this point.”
The Syrian army and its Russian and Iran-backed allies since June have also been on an offensive in southern Syria, raising concerns Iranian backed-forces could take up positions in formerly rebel-held areas bordering the Golan Heights. Israel has called for the 1974 disengagement agreement between it and Syria to be upheld and warned Syrian forces against entering the demilitarized buffer zone along the border.
Dampening Israeli hopes that the US may adopt a drastic change in its policy towards the Golan Heights, Bolton said the Trump administration wasn’t discussing potential recognition of Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the territory, despite reported pressure from Jerusalem to make the move.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and annexed the territory in the early 1980s. But the United States and the international community have long refused to recognize Israeli sovereignty there and considered it Syrian territory under Israeli occupation.
“I’ve heard the idea being suggested but there’s no discussion of it, no decision within the US government,” Bolton told the Reuters.
“Obviously we understand the Israeli claim that it has annexed the Golan Heights – we understand their position – but there’s no change in the US position for now,” he said.
Agencies contributed to this report.