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Putin would be happy to see Iranian forces leave Syria, John Bolton says

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton holds a news conference in Jerusalem, Aug. 22. (Abir Sultan/AP)

JERUSALEM — Russian President Vladimir Putin told the United States that an Iranian presence in Syria does not tally with Russian interests and that he would be content to see all Iran-linked forces go home, national security adviser John Bolton said Wednesday.

Bolton made the comments at the end of a three-day visit to Israel, where he spoke with officials ahead of a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Geneva. His claims clashed with recent statements by Russian officials, who have said that Iran is playing a constructive role in Syria.

Israel has been lobbying the United States to do more about Iranian entrenchment across its northern border in Syria as the civil war winds down, demanding that all forces linked to its arch foe leave.

Persuading Russia to assert its influence in containing Iran could be one of Israel’s best hopes to achieve this. Alongside Iran, Russia has provided Syria with the military assistance that helped tip the civil war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

National Security Adviser John Bolton said Aug. 22 United States sanctions on Iran are working, but reaffirmed that the U.S. is not seeking regime change. (Video: Reuters)

The issue was raised in discussions between Putin and President Trump in Helsinki last month, and the Russian president also spoke with Bolton on the subject three weeks earlier, the U.S. national security adviser said.

Putin said that “Iranian interests in Syria were not conterminous with Russian interests in Syria and that he would be content to see the Iranian forces all sent back to Iran,” Bolton said. “It was not a question of where they might be inside Syria. We were talking about a complete return of both the regular and irregular Iranian forces.”

However, Putin said that “I can’t do it myself” and that a “joint U.S.-Russia effort” may be needed, Bolton said. He was responding to a question about a Reuters report that quoted Bolton as saying that Putin told Trump that he could not eject Iranian forces from Syria. 

Other Russian officials have struck a different tone in public, however, casting Iran as a constructive partner to Russia in ridding Syria of extremist militants.

“In contrast to the United States and its coalition, we and the other guarantor countries, Turkey and Iran, are promoting stabilization and normalization in that country with deeds, rather than words,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, the Interfax news agency reported Wednesday.

Anatoly Viktorov, Russia’s ambassador to Israel, said in July that Russia could not ask Iran to leave Syria. He said Iran’s withdrawal from Syria would be “unrealistic” because Tehran is “playing an important role in our common efforts toward extermination of terrorists in Syria,” according to Russia’s Tass state news agency.

In Syria, accidental bulwark against Iran shows confusion of Trump policy

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Bolton’s upcoming meeting with Nikolai Patrushev, Russia’s Security Council head, would deal with many “complicated” issues.

“Bilateral relations continue to deteriorate,” Peskov told reporters Wednesday. “We need to find points of interaction and to understand whether such points exist and whether our counterparts want that.”

Earlier comments by Bolton from Israel were not received well by the Kremlin. Peskov also said Wednesday that Bolton’s comments that Russia is “stuck” in Syria and looking for others to fund postwar construction, made in an interview with Reuters, were incorrect. 

“It is not correct for anyone, let alone our counterparts in Washington, to claim that Russia has stuck someplace,” he said. “Let us not forget that U.S. military personnel is present on Syrian soil, too.”

Bolton said the United States remains determined to finish eliminating Islamic State forces in the country, but also to “deal with the presence of the Iranians.” He cautioned Syria against using chemical weapons as the government gears up for an offensive in Idlib province.

“If the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons, we will respond very strongly,” he said. 

Previously a vocal advocate of regime change in Iran, Bolton has stressed since taking his position in the Trump administration last year that ousting the Iranian government is not U.S. policy. However, the United States wants a “massive change” in Iranian “belligerence” in the region, he said. 

By reimposing sanctions after pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, he said, the United States has brought “the hammer down again,” which has caused a “profound” impact: “I think more serious than we would have predicted.”

European nations have been attempting to save the deal, although the threat of U.S. sanctions has caused private-sector companies to flee the Iranian market. 

Bolton said he briefed Israel’s prime minister and other officials on diplomatic discussions that U.S. officials have had with the Europeans and on the American determination to drive Iranian oil exports “down to zero.”

“We’ve talked about the president’s determination in reimposing the sanctions, that we are not just going to stop at where the sanctions were in 2015,” he said. 

Bolton also touched on Trump’s comments at a rally Tuesday night in Charleston, W.Va., where he said that Israel would “have to pay a higher price” in negotiations with the Palestinians in return for the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in May. “They won that very big thing,” he said. 

Bolton said that as a “dealmaker,” Trump would expect that the Palestinians would say: “Great, so we didn’t get that one; now we want something else.” 

But it’s “not an issue of quid pro quo,” he said. 

Troianovski reported from Moscow

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