Bolton says US troops will remain in Syria as long as Iran ‘menaces’ Middle East
Delil Souleiman, AFP
President Donald Trump’s top security adviser on Sunday appeared to walk back a promise by the White House to withdraw US troops from Syria, saying that the United States would remain in Syria so long as “Iranian menace” continues to threaten the Middle East.
Trump said in April that he wanted US troops to return home, as their mission to rout the Islamic State out of their last pockets of shrinking territory in Iraq and Syria appeared to be drawing to a close.
Trump’s call for an immediate and complete withdrawal of American troops from the region came even as top US officials stressed the need to stay for the long term.
It also sparked concern with Israel, Gulf States, and allied Kurdish groups in Syria, who expressed concern that a US exit would leave a power vacuum that would be filled by Russia and ally Iran, both of whom are helping to prop up Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s embattled regime.
Israel has repeatedly warned that pro-Iranian forces fighting alongside Russian-backed Assad were attempting to stake out a permanent presence in the country, consolidating in southern Syria adjacent to Israel’s northern border.
Speaking to ABC news on Sunday, Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said that US troops would remain on the ground so long as Iran and its proxies threatened regional stability.
“I think the president has made it clear that we are there until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East,” Bolton said.
Bolton said that the subject would be discussed by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet for their hotly anticipated first official summit in Helsinki on Monday.
Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov has also indicated that Syria and the fate of Iranian forces in the country would feature prominently in the leaders’ talks.
The topic was also discussed by Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call on Saturday evening, and during a meeting between Netanyahu and Putin in Moscow last Wednesday.
The flurry of diplomatic exchanges on the matter have been accompanied by reports that Israel and the US are coordinating a strategy that would see the total removal of Iranian forces from Syria in exchange for Israel’s nonintervention in the stabilization of Assad’s rule and, even more significantly, a potential offer from Trump to drop sanctions and recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
After Netanyahu and Putin's meeting, Israeli diplomatic sources were quoted by the Haaretz daily as saying that in exchange for Russia pushing Iranian forces from the border, Israel is expected not to "intervene" in Assad's efforts to stabilize his rule.
It was not clear what specific actions Putin wants Israel to refrain from taking.
Though allied with Assad, Moscow has largely given Israeli warplanes a free hand over Syrian skies and has turned a blind eye to frequent strikes attributed to Israel targeting Syrian military outposts housing Iranian and Iran-backed forces and armaments, including heavy weapons convoys believed destined for Hezbollah.
On the eve of the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki, Damascus accused Israel of carrying out a rare strike far in the country’s north near Aleppo, which was said to target “positions held by Syria's regime and its allies at the Neirab airport and around it,” according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
Following his meeting with Putin, Netanyahu appeared to significantly soften his rhetoric towards Assad, whom he has previously branded a “butcher” for his regime’s part in an eight-year civil war that has claimed the lives of some 350,000 people and driven millions from their homes.
“We haven't had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights,” the Israeli premier was quoted by Haaretz newspaper as telling reporters who accompanied him on the Moscow visit.
But Israel’s commitment to stay out of the Syrian conflict may not be enough for Russia to push Iranian forces, which explains reports that Netanyahu prepared Putin for a potential arrangement trading Syria for Crimea.
“Trading Ukraine for Syria” was first brought up by an Israeli cabinet member shortly after Trump’s entering office, the New Yorker magazine reported earlier this month.
The Times reported that US national security adviser, John Bolton appeared to corroborate a tit-for-tat deal, quoting him as saying that “There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria . . . which would be a significant step forward.”
Trump declined to answer questions as to whether the US would recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea during a press conference following the NATO summit last week, but acknowledged Russia’s significant investment in infrastructure in the territory.
Trump also apparently said during a dinner at the G7 summit last month that Crimea was part of Russia, since everyone speaks Russian in the region.
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