JERUSALEM, Israel — U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton told Breitbart News in an exclusive interview on Wednesday that the Trump administration insists “Hezbollah forces in Syria have to go back to Lebanon.”
In a wide-ranging conversation following several days of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior Israeli defense officials, Amb. Bolton discussed the U.S. position on Iranian and Hezbollah operations in Syria and the threat they pose to Israel and to U.S. interests in the region.
Syria and Iranian deployment in Syria, he said, dominated President Donald Trump’s discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last month. That came after Netanyahu had previously expressed grave concern regarding the threat Iran’s entrenchment in Syria poses to Israel.
In Bolton’s words: “Syria was the main topic of discussion during President Trump’s meeting with President Putin in Helsinki. This was the case both during their meeting with their advisors and during their one-on-one meeting. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s discussion of the issue during his phone call with the president earlier that week and during his visit with Putin during the FIFA [World Cup] tournament [on July 12] contributed to making Syria such an important issue.”
During his press conference with President Trump, Putin prompted concerns from critics about his intentions regarding the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
On the one hand, Putin reinstated his previous agreement with Netanyahu, that the 1974 Disengagement of Forces Agreement that Israel and Syria concluded would be reinstated. Putin said, “The south of Syria should be brought to the full compliance with the treaty of 1974 about the separation of forces of Israel and Syria.”
The Separation of Forces Agreement bars Syrian military forces from deploying along the border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
But Putin went on to say that implementing the 1974 agreement would contribute “toward creating a lasting peace in compliance with the respective resolutions of Security Council, for instance the [UNSC] Resolution 338.”
Resolution 338 from 1973 is a restatement of UN Security Council Resolution 242 from 1967. Resolution 242 was adopted at the end of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War. During the course of that war, Israel took control over the Golan Heights from Syria.
The resolution calls for Israel to withdraw “from territories” it took control over during the war in the framework of a regional peace. That peace would be based on the Arab states’ acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, “within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
Putin’s allusion to Resolution 338 raised concerns that he would use his position as a powerbroker in Syria to try to coerce Israel into negotiating its continued control over the Golan Heights.
Bolton told Breitbart News that he addressed the issue during the meeting that Putin and Trump held with their advisors in Helsinki.
“I asked him about that during our meeting and he basically said that he isn’t challenging the legitimacy of Israeli control over the Golan Heights,” Bolton said.
Over the past several months, as the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Iranian and Russian sponsors effectively won the civil war and ensured the regime’s survival, senior Israeli officials have called for the Israeli government to work towards achieving U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Israel effectively annexed the Golan Heights when it applied its law to the area in 1981. The Syrian civil war underlined that Israel cannot defend northern Israel without the Golan Heights.
During an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, Bolton said, “I’ve heard the idea being suggested but there’s no discussion of it, no decision within the U.S. government.
“Obviously we understand the Israeli claim that it has annexed the Golan Heights. We understand their position – but there’s no change in the U.S. position for now.”
Speaking to Breitbart Wednesday, Bolton made clear that the administration’s position is not final, noting, “U.S. recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan is not on the table, for now.”
The biggest conventional threat Israel faces today is the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah terror group. Discussions of the future of Syria between Israel, Russia, and the U.S. have focused on the joint Israeli-U.S. position that Iranian forces must be removed from Syria. But in response to a question from Breitbart News, Bolton said that this position includes Hezbollah forces as well.
“Hezbollah forces in Syria have to go back to Lebanon,” he said.
Bolton added, “They are functionally part of the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards] Qods Force.”
He explained that Hezbollah forces were deployed to Lebanon by the Qods Force because Iran needed boots on the ground to protect the Assad regime.
Bolton noted that Hezbollah’s already daunting threat to Israel is rapidly expanding. Iran seeks to transforms Hezbollah’s arsenal of 150,000 rockets into guided missiles through kits that place fins on their backs and add GPS devices.
In his words, “The Iranian kits that transform rockets into ballistic missiles are a profound threat.”
Following his interview with Breitbart, Bolton gave a press conference to the Israeli and U.S. media. There he repeated the Trump administration’s support for the air strikes Israel has conducted in Syria to block Iranian transfer sof advanced weapons, including the ballistic missile conversion kits to Lebanon.
In his words, “Every time Iran has brought missiles or other threatening weapons into Syria in recent months, Israel has struck those targets. I think that is a legitimate act of self-defense on the part of Israel.”
At the press conference, Bolton also said the U.S. was committing to wiping ISIS out, while countering Iranian influence:
What is absolutely central to American policy is that we’re determined to finish the job of eliminating the ISIS territorial caliphate but to deal with the consequences of continuing ISIS activity in Syria and Iraq. But also to deal with the presence of the Iranians. This is something that perhaps the Obama administration didn’t foresee, whether they should have or not didn’t foresee at the beginning of the anti-ISIS campaign, that Iran obviously had a strategic plan to create an arc of control from Iran through the Shia areas of Iraq, into Syria, linking up with Hezbollah in Lebanon. That’s not something we want to see.
Hezbollah extended its control over the Lebanese government in the parliamentary election in May. Israeli leaders have warned repeatedly that Hezbollah’s control over the Lebanese government extends as well to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
Following the Lebanese elections, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned, “Hezbollah has in practice completed its takeover of Lebanon. And this means it is in complete control not just of the Lebanese [government], but also its army. From now on a Lebanese sniper is a Hezbollah stand-in and takes direct orders from Hezbollah and [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah. And that is a new reality.”
Despite Hezbollah’s tightened grip on the Lebanese government and armed forces, the U.S. continues to supply the Lebanese military with advanced weapons.
In June, the U.S. delivered four Super Tucano A-29s, completing a shipment of six since the beginning of 2018.
At the ceremony transferring the fighter jets to the Lebanese air force, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard said, “The A-29 provides the LAF with precision guided munitions and advanced precision strike capability. This is a game-changing acquisition that takes the LAF to the next level of combat capability.
“With the A-29, the LAF will now be able to conduct joint combined arms maneuvers in all conditions, day and night, in a way that greatly reduces the risk of collateral damage and the danger to civilians.”
She added, “We will be complementing the power of the A-29 aircraft with six MD-530G light attack scout helicopters…This is a significant Air Force that we are building together.”
Richard summarized U.S. military aid to the LAF by noting, “Over the last decade, the U.S. government has invested over $1.5 billion in training and equipment, and we have trained over 32,000 Lebanese troops.”
In his conversation with Breitbart, Bolton did not directly engage the question of U.S. military assistance to the LAF, which is strongly promoted by the Pentagon. He did note, “Lebanese Americans are very worried about it. They see that [Lebanese President Michel] Aoun is controlled by Hezbollah.”
Bolton underlined as well the connection between the Iranian nuclear program and the North Korean nuclear program. In 2007, Israel destroyed a North Korean-built nuclear reactor in Al-Kibar, Syria. Israelis have long attested that Iran paid for the reactor. Bolton acknowledged the truth of Israel’s claim.
“Syrian [military] officers who defected to the United States have told us that they helped transfer Iranian funds that financed the North Korean built nuclear reactor in Syria,” Bolton told Breitbart News.
The nuclear negotiations the Trump administration is conducting with North Korea may have profound implications for Iran.
Bolton explained, “The lesson Iran took from the 2007 bombing [of the al Kibar nuclear reactor] was that if you conduct illicit nuclear operations, do them far away from Israel.”