Commander of US troops in Syria makes unannounced first visit to Israel
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Commander of US troops in Syria makes unannounced first visit to Israel

Gen. Joseph Votel to meet with IDF chief, senior defense officials amid heightened tensions between Israel, Iran

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

US Army General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 27, 2018. (AFP /Saul Loeb)
US Army General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, February 27, 2018. (AFP /Saul Loeb)

The head of the US military’s Central Command, which is responsible for American activities in the Middle East, arrived in Israel on Monday to meet with senior Israeli officials for talks expected to focus on Syria and tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran, Israel’s Kan news broadcaster reported.

Despite this being the first trip to Israel by Gen. Joseph Votel, the current head of the Central Command, or CENTCOM, the visit has been without fanfare or publicity.

The meetings come amid a period of heightened tensions between Israel, Syria and Iran, following a deadly airstrike on an alleged Iranian facility in central Syria, which has been attributed to the Israeli Air Force. Israel officially will not comment on the strike.

In the time since the strike, Tehran and Jerusalem have traded verbal blows. Iranian officials have threatened reprisals against the Jewish state, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has countered that Israel will “exact a price from those who want to hurt us.”

Votel commands the American troops in Syria, whom US President Donald Trump has said he is considering returning to the United States once the Islamic State, or ISIS, is defeated there. Israel would rather the US remain its presence in Syria, as it believes the American soldiers are helping prevent Iran’s entrenchment in the country.

Israel has designated Iran’s deepening military presence in Syria a “red line” that it will work to prevent, with lethal force, if necessary.

During his visit, Votel is scheduled to meet with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, and other senior defense officials.

“He will meet with senior officials in order to strengthen the connection between the armies and discuss security issues. This is the first time that the commander of CENTCOM visited Israel,” the army told Kan news.

Though Israel is, obviously, located in the Middle East, it does not often work with CENTCOM, and instead operates with the US military’s European Command, or EUCOM. This is an attempt by the US military to avoid conflict with other countries in the Middle East, whose populations generally hold a negative opinion of Israel.

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