Ex-defense minister asks US for clarifications on Trump’s Syria policies

Ex-defense minister asks US for clarifications on Trump’s Syria policies

Amir Peretz says he’s ‘deeply concerned’ Trump would allow a ‘Syrian-Iranian-Russian axis’ to shape the region; Erdan dismisses worries as ‘recycled drama’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

MK Amir Peretz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, October 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Amir Peretz attends a Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee meeting at the Knesset, October 22, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Former defense minister MK Amir Peretz on Thursday expressed disappointment and “great concern” about US President Donald Trump’s statement the day before on Iranians being able to “what they want” in Syria.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Peretz (Labor) said he would appreciate “any clarification and explanation” of Trump’s remarks.

“The words of the president are bound to raise grave concerns among many Israeli citizens, who well understand the hegemonic ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran and know all too well the murderous methods it deploys to achieve these ambitions,” Peretz’s letter states.

Peretz, who is a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and chairs the Subcommittee for the Readiness of the Home Front, went on to say that the US president’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria would allow a “Syrian-Iranian-Russian axis to shape the future of our region.”

Trump’s statement Wednesday “only adds to the weakening of moderate forces in the region,” added Peretz, who served as Israel’s defense minister from May 2006 to June 2007.

“The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke said that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” the letter went on. “For Israel, the US has always been on the side of the good. We cannot accept a reality in which it chooses to stand by idly.”

On Wednesday, Trump said of Iranian forces in Syria: “They can do what they want there, frankly,” while suggesting Tehran was removing its troops from the country.

His statement came two weeks after he rattled Jerusalem by announcing that he would pull all 2,000 US troops out of Syria. US soldiers have been leading the coalition against the Islamic State terror group, while also helping to thwart the establishment of permanent Iranian military infrastructure in Syria.

Israeli officials have also warned that America’s absence would open the door for Tehran to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.

‘We never relied on US troops in Syria’

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of the security cabinet, on Thursday tried to downplay Trump’s statement.

“I don’t understand why they’re trying to recycle this drama time and again,” he told Army Radio.

While Israel may have preferred that US troops remain in Syria, it was the president’s prerogative to withdraw them whenever he sees fit “even if we don’t always see eye to eye,” Erdan, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, said.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a press conference in Tel Aviv, September 13, 2018. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Trump’s decision on Syria does not alter his commitment to Israel’s security, the senior minister noted. “We never relied on US troops in Syria. All together we’re talking about 2,000 troops and our policy to prevent Iran’s entrancement in Syria is based exclusively on the IDF and the government’s policy and not on the US presence,” he said.

“There is no substantive change in the way Israel plans to confront Iran’s entrenchment in Syria,” Erdan concluded.

Speaking anonymously, a senior Israeli official on Thursday, however, reportedly criticized Trump for appearing to give Iran free rein to further entrench militarily in Syria.

“It is sad that he is not attentive to intelligence materials,” the unnamed Israeli official told the Ynet news website.

“I am quite simply in shock,” the source continued. “Trump simply does not know what is happening in Syria and the Iranian entrenchment there.”

Israel has repeatedly warned in recent years that Iran is seeking to establish a military presence in Syria, where it is fighting alongside its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah and Russia to restore the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

This frame grab from video released on July 22, 2017, and provided by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, shows Hezbollah fighters firing a missile at positions of al-Qaeda-linked militants in an area on the Lebanon-Syria border. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

Over the last several years, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran.

Yet Trump, on Wednesday, said at a cabinet meeting that Tehran, like the US, was withdrawing its forces from Syria.

The American president went on to say that in pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran last year, Washington had changed Tehran’s calculus and stymied its efforts to destabilize the region.

“Iran is no longer the same country,” he said. “Iran is pulling people out of Syria. They can do what they want there, frankly, but they’re pulling people out. They’re pulling people out of Yemen. Iran wants to survive now.”

Trump’s decision to pull America’s 2,000 troops out from Syria caused a major shakeup within his own administration; his secretary of defense, James Mattis, resigned over the withdrawal.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Wednesday, January 2, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Trump offered a stark take on the situation in Syria Wednesday, summing it up in two words — “sand and death” — while remaining vague about the timing of the US troop withdrawal.

“So Syria was lost long ago. It was lost long ago. And besides that, I don’t want — we’re talking about sand and death. That’s what we’re talking about,” Trump said during a cabinet meeting. “We’re not talking about vast wealth. We’re talking about sand and death.”

On when US forces would leave Syria, Trump said: “I don’t want to be in Syria forever.”

He added: “I never said we are getting out overnight… We’re withdrawing… over a period of time.”

The US president’s announcement of the Syrian withdrawal was the first significant point of contention between Washington and Jerusalem since he took office — Netanyahu reportedly pleaded with him to rethink the decision — and has fortified the perception that he views the US relationship with Israel as transactional.

On Tuesday, Pompeo told Netanyahu that the planned withdrawal of US ground forces from Syria will not alter America’s commitment to countering Iranian aggression and maintaining Israel’s security.

“The decision by the president on Syria in no way changes anything that this administration is working on alongside Israel,” Pompeo said at a joint press conference with Netanyahu before they held talks in Brazil.

Trump said last week that he did not think America’s removing its troops from Syria would endanger Israel.

Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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