US National Security Adviser John Bolton said on Monday that Russian plans to supply Syria with an S-300 missile system would be a "significant escalation" by Moscow and that more than 2,000 US troops stationed in Syria would remain in the war-ravaged country “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders”.
Speaking at a press conference on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, he criticised Moscow's announcement that it would supply a S-300 surface-to-air missile system to the regime of President Bashar Al Assad within two weeks.
Mr Bolton said he hoped that Russia would reconsider its plans to provide Syria with the air defence missiles. The decision came after Syrian missiles downed a Russian aircraft in a friendly fire incident last week, killing 15 Russian servicemen, as Israeli jets launched strikes against Syrian regime targets.
"We think introducing the S-300s to the Syrian government would be a significant escalation by the Russians ... and something that we hope, if these press reports are accurate, they would reconsider," Mr Bolton said.
Moscow initially blamed Israel for the downing but then backed down in a bid to defuse tensions.
The Russian deaths last week have forced Moscow to take "adequate retaliatory measures to increase the safety of its military fighting international terrorism in Syria," Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in a televised address on Monday.
"A modern S-300 air defence missile system will be transferred to the Syrian armed forces within two weeks," he said, significantly increasing the combat capabilities of President Bashar Al Assad's forces.
Mr Bolton blamed Iran’s involvement in both Syria and Lebanon for the incident, arguing that it is Iranian presence that creates the strategic threat forcing Israel to carry out air strikes in the country.
Israel also railed against the Russian decision on Monday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin that supplying advanced weapon systems to "irresponsible players" would increase dangers in the region, a statement from Netanyahu's office said.
Israel, which has struck Syria many times during the seven-year war, said after the incident that it would work to improve "deconfliction" of its missions, but would not halt them. It has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 system to Syria.
Earlier in the war, Russia suspended a supply of S-300s, which Israel feared Syria could use against it. Mr Shoigu said Russia is now going to go ahead with the shipment because "the situation has changed".
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told journalists that the decision to supply the weapons was "not directed at any third country". "Russia needs to increase safety of its military and it should be clear for everyone," he said.
The US presence in Syria is now officially linked to Iran’s own presence in the country, Mr Bolton said. His message on Monday was simple: If Tehran keeps its troops on Syrian territory, so will Washington. The US has over 2,000 troops stationed in eastern Syria and near the Turkish border. They are mostly focused on supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Arab coalition, and on the fight against ISIS.
Mr Bolton said that “regime change in Iran is not the [Trump] administration’s policy. What we expect from Iran is massive changes in their behaviour”. Absent of that, he said the campaign of maximum pressure will continue.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also had some tough words for both Iran and Russia at the press conference. “I am very confident that Russian decision to move S-300 to Syria will come up in bilateral meetings this week” he said, adding that the move suggests that Moscow is "working against" US interests in Syria.
Asked if we will meet his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in New York, Mr Pompeo said: “I'm sure Sergei and I will have our time together.”
Previewing Mr Trump's agenda at the UN, Mr Pompeo said that the administration is "leading from the front", and that US President Donald Trump will have "tough words" for Tehran at Tuesday's Security Council meeting on non-proliferation.Thwarting Iran's destructive activity, and coordinating the pressure campaign is what the US is seeking from its Iran meetings in New York, Mr Pompeo said. Those included a meeting on Monday between Mr Trump and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and another one with the French President Emmanuel Macron. Mr Pompeo argued that the campaign for maximum pressure on Iran appears to be paying off. He said when the administration took over two years ago, Iran and its shadowy spy chief Qassem Soleimani "were running rampant in five capitals," including Baghdad. Now, he said, the push is for "a national, inclusive government in Iraq".
On Turkey, Mr Pompeo hoped it would release Andrew Brunson, the detained American pastor, "immediately". The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that there is increased hope for Mr Brunson's release when he appears in court on October 12. The US Secretary of State said there will be talks with Turkish officials this week to discuss Mr Brunson's release.
Speaking about North Korea, Mr Pompeo said “now is not the time to ease pressure” and not until complete and verifiable denuclearisation has been achieved.
Announcing a trip to North Korea in the near future, he said ”make no mistake, the conversations are important, they're putting the opportunity to complete the denuclearisation in place. We'll continue at every level to have those conversations.”
He also expected a second meeting to happen between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. On Monday, Mr Trump said "Kim Jong Un wrote a letter, a beautiful letter, asking for a second meeting, and we will be doing that. Secretary Pompeo will be working that out. In the immediate future, it looks like it's moving very well.”
Mr Pompeo also dismissed any talk about the 25th amendment within Mr Trump's cabinet to oust the American leader. He called the idea "ludicrous".
“I’ve never heard anyone talk about it, whisper about it, joke about it in any way,” Mr Pompeo said. “I’ve been in a lot of meetings with a lot of senior officials from this government.”