Bolton defends Israeli strikes in Syria as ‘legitimate self-defense‘

Israel has struck Syria “everytime Iran has brought missiles or other threatening weapons into Syria,” US National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Wednesday. He added that he viewed those strikes as “a legitimate act of self-defense.”

Bolton‘s comments came at a press conference on the final day of a three-day visit to Israel dominated by talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials about Iran and Syria.

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Bolton revealed that in discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin three weeks before Putin and US President Donald Trump met in Helsinki, the Russian leader said that Russian and Iranian interests were not the same in Syria; and that he would be “content to see the Iranian forces all sent back to Iran.”

“It was not a question of where they would be inside Syria,” Bolton said, referring to the current 85km buffer zone from the Israeli border from where Moscow said they have pushed back Iranian forces and Shia militias.

“We were talking talking about the complete return both of regular and irregular Iranian forces,” Bolton said, adding that Putin declared he could not do it himself.

“So the point was that perhaps joint US-Russian efforts might be sufficient. Now I don‘t know if that is right either, but it is certainly one of the subjects I will be talking about with my Russian counterpart in Geneva tomorrow.” Bolton is scheduled to meet with Nikolai Patrushev for follow-up talks to the Trump-Putin summit last month.

Regarding Syria as “extraordinarily complicated” given the amount of different actors involved, Bolton added that what is central to US policy in Syria is not only to defeat of the Islamic State and the elimination of its territorial caliphate, but also to deal with Iran’s presence.

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In addition, Bolton said that when the Obama administration set out on its anti-Islamic State campaign, it did not foresee “that Iran obviously had a strategic plan to create an arc of control from Iran through the Shia areas in Iraq and Syria,  linking them up with Hezbollah in Lebanon. That is not something we want to see.”

Bolton noted that the US has acted militarily twice since Trump came to power in Syria when Syrian President Bashar Assad used chemical weapons, and that as Assad gets ready for another offensive campaign in the Idlib province, there should be no ambiguity that the US will respond if he uses chemical weapons again.

Regarding Iran, Bolton said that “regime change” is not America‘s policy, but “what we want is massive change in the regime‘s behavior.” He said that the premises of the Obama administration‘s policy regarding Iran – that if the nuclear issue was solved, Iran would behave like a “normal country” – have proven completely wrong.

Iran‘s economy has been mismanaged for years, Bolton said, adding that the 2015 nuclear deal “mitigated the effects of this management of the economy, and gave the regime new life. It gave this regime – which has been the central banker of international terrorism since 1979 – new assets that could be used for its nuclear weapons program, for its ballistic missiles program, for its terrorist support activities and for its conventional military activities.”

Lifting of the sanctions under the deal gave the Iranians a feeling that they had a “free hand” in the region, Bolton added. “By bringing the hammer down again and reimposing American sanctions, we have seen a profound negative effect on Iran –I think more significant then we would have predicted.”

Bolton said that what was significant about the demonstrations taking place now in Iran is that they are not organized, but rather “just regular people saying they are fed up with the government.”

Bolton said that he briefed Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials during his talks here on “the whole range of issues connected to Iran.” This included US talks with Europeans to encourage them to increase pressure on Iran; efforts to make sure that various countries around the world who have been dependent on Iranian oil have other sources “so we can drive exports down to zero;” and efforts to enforce the sanctions more stringently – with less waivers – than what was done under the Obama administration.