Bolton Says ‘No Change’ in Opposition to Syrian Chemical Weapons
(Bloomberg) -- U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said “there is absolutely no change” in the Trump administration’s opposition to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“A lot of options” would be available in the event of another incident, Bolton told reporters as he flew to the Middle East for meetings in Turkey and Israel. If the U.S. had to react again, the next response would be “more telling” than the last, he said.
Asked if his comment on weapons is based on new intelligence about Assad’s plans, Bolton indicated it was not but that he had been speaking with allies and wanted to be clear about the U.S. posture to avoid the perception that the American position had changed.
During the trip, Bolton also will tell Israeli leaders that there is no timetable for an American military pullout from Syria, two weeks after President Donald Trump’s announcement of a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces.
In his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his government, Bolton also will emphasize that no decision has been made on the departure of American troops from the Syrian base at al-Tanf, near the borders of Iraq and Jordan, a senior administration official said late Friday.
Although the Trump administration still does plan to leave Syria, reports of a specific timeline are incorrect, according to the official, who asked not to be identified discussing the matter because of its sensitivity.
The official said that some American forces would be moved from Syria to Iraq, but that Bolton wanted to listen to the Israelis and the Jordanians, particularly concerns about Iranian influence in Syria, before the U.S. decides on its next steps regarding al-Tanf.
Earlier Friday, a State Department official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the matter, said the pullout would be carried out in consultation with allies and in a fashion that will not allow Islamic State to regroup.
Bolton also plans to raise concerns about the penetration of Chinese technology in Israel, and direct investment by China in the country, particularly in the port of Haifa, the official said, adding that the Chinese telecommunication companies Huawei Technologies Ltd. and ZTE Corp. would be brought up in those discussions. The companies have denied accusations by American officials that their equipment presents security risks.
Fears for Kurds
Bolton and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will be crisscrossing the Middle East over the next week to reassure nervous U.S. allies after his surprise announcement on Syria, and Jim Mattis’s resignation as defense chief.
Bolton will meet with Netanyahu before heading to Turkey. Pompeo will be visiting eight countries in the Middle East, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, over the course of one week starting Jan. 8, the State Department announced Friday.
One reason why even Trump supporters were alarmed by the president’s Syria decision was that it could leave Kurdish militias who have been allied with the U.S. in the country exposed to attacks by Turkey, which views them as terrorists. Pompeo’s warning during a Fox News interview on Thursday that the Turks shouldn’t “slaughter the Kurds” was denounced by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday.
Bolton and Pompeo will face allies worried that Trump is ceding influence in the Middle East to Iran after his announcement that he’d remove U.S. military forces from Syria -- apparently a snap decision made during a phone call with Erdogan.
The Syria move, which Trump now says will take place “slowly,” prompted Mattis’s resignation and was followed by reports the president also decided to halve the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan.
Erdogan will be seeking reassurance that the U.S. intends to pressure its Kurdish allies to withdraw from Syrian cities including Manbij and, more broadly, from the Turkish border. Turkey also wants the U.S. to collect American weapons supplied to the Kurds, though it’s not clear Bolton would make such a commitment.
The national security adviser will be joined in Turkey by General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement.
Beyond Syria, the best public indication of the administration’s vision for the region may come during a speech Pompeo plans to give in Cairo on “the United States’ commitment to peace, prosperity, stability, and security in the Middle East,” according to the State Department. But the administration’s long-awaited Mideast peace plan, drafted by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, may be on pause after Netanyahu called early elections for April.
Pompeo will also make a symbolically significant visit to Saudi Arabia, his first since rushing to the kingdom soon after the killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi by people close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A State Department official on Friday said the kingdom’s explanations for the killing don’t reach a threshold of credibility and accountability.
Additionally, Pompeo will seek to advance peace talks over the conflict in Yemen during his trip, which will include stops in Jordan, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Kuwait.
Bolton will seek to shore up his own credibility in the Middle East, after declaring in September that the U.S. wouldn’t leave Syria as long as adversaries including Iran, Russia and Islamic State remained in the country, which has been devastated by a civil war that began in 2011.
The withdrawal decision raised concerns in Israel that the U.S. is effectively ceding the country to Iran, which is fighting alongside the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Russia to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Israel fears Iran is seeking to turn Syria into a launching pad for future attacks against the Jewish state.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria against targets it describes as Iranian bases and weapons convoys, and it viewed an American presence in Syria as a deterrent against Iranian efforts to transport weapons to Syria and Lebanon. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration will ensure there is no power vacuum for terrorists to exploit in Syria as it begins to withdraw troops.
Netanyahu, who long lobbied Trump not to hastily withdraw from Syria, reiterated the request to phase out a withdrawal in a meeting with Pompeo in Brazil this month, according to an Israeli official.
The U.S. “is acting against Iran at the economic level and we here in Israel are acting against Iran at the military level,” Netanyahu said on Thursday during an address to Israeli army cadets, seeking to downplay any disagreement between his country and the U.S. on the need to confront Iran.
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