Bolton Says Removing Iran From Syria Trumps Deposing Assad

National-security adviser John Bolton said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power wasn’t a strategic issue for the U.S. and that President Donald Trump hoped to secure Russia’s help in evicting Iranian forces from the country, Al Arabiya reports.

Middle East experts, allied officials and some leading U.S. lawmakers have long argued that there is little hope of bringing stability to Syria as long as Assad is at the helm. But appearing on CBS on Sunday, Bolton indicated that Assad’s efforts to vanquish his opposition weren’t the Trump administration’s principal concern in the region.

Trump planned to seek Moscow’s help in scaling back Iran’s military presence in Syria when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on July 16. Bolton expanded on that theme on Sunday, saying Iran’s presence was a question the “two presidents will want to discuss at length.”

With the U.S out of the Iran nuclear agreement, the Trump administration is stamping down on the Iranian regime. The Wall Street Journal’s Gerald F. Seib explains the sources of pressure. Photo: Reuters

“There are possibilities for doing a larger negotiation on helping to get Iranian forces out of Syria and back into Iran, which would be a significant step forward. I don’t think Assad is the strategic issue. I think Iran is the strategic issue. It’s not just their continuing nuclear weapons program it’s their massive support for international terrorism and their conventional forces in the Middle East,” Bolton said.

He added that Iran’s presence was a question the “two presidents [Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin] will want to discuss at length” when they meet in Helsinki on July 16. Bolton also addressed Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal with world powers.

“I think President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the misbegotten Iran nuclear deal, reimpose our sanctions begin to put much more pressure on Iran is having an effect on their decision making not just on the nuclear issue but on these efforts to extend Iranian influence around the region.”

Later in the interview, Bolton referred to Iran as the “largest financier of international terrorism around the world.”

Skeptics question whether the Kremlin has sufficient leverage over Assad to induce Tehran to withdraw its forces from Syria, The Wall Street Journal adds. The Syrian regime has been heavily dependent on Iranian forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias in seizing territory. Maintaining a military presence in Syria has also been a top priority for Tehran, which has sought to maintain a corridor to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group.

“Any endorsement of Assad today for a promise to get Iran out later is simply wishing the problem away,” said Rim Albezem, a Syrian-American physician who is active in the movement to oppose Mr. Assad’s rule. “Neither Putin nor Assad can ask them to leave; they will leave when the costs outweigh the benefits and not before.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, responding to a question from Sen. James Lankford (R. Okla.) during an appearance before Congress on Wednesday, said the ultimate goal should be to foster a solution that led to the departure of Assad, as well as Iranian forces. Still, Pompeo also made the point that Iran was the main threat to U.S. interests in Syria.

“From America’s perspective, it seems to me Iran presents the greatest threat to the United States and the place we ought to focus our efforts, at least at the beginning with respect to the political resolution,” he said.