IDF chief: US troops leaving Syria is ‘significant,’ but no need to overstate it
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'We've been dealing with this front for decades, alone'

IDF chief: US troops leaving Syria is ‘significant,’ but no need to overstate it

In first comments since American announcement of pullout, Gadi Eisenkot says Israel will keep fighting Iran in Syria independently

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

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the defense ministry's headquarters in Tel Aviv, on December 4, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the defense ministry's headquarters in Tel Aviv, on December 4, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot on Sunday called the White House’s decision to pull its troops from Syria a “significant event,” but said the Israeli military would continue to independently fight Iran’s military presence in the neighboring country.

Last week, US President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the approximately 2,000 US troops currently stationed in northeastern Syria, a move many analysts fear will allow Iran to more easily spread weapons and fighters throughout the Middle East. The US soldiers had been specifically deployed there to fight the Islamic State terror group, but had also helped block the establishment of an Iranian-controlled land corridor from the Islamic Republic through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.

“The American decision to withdraw troops from Syria is a significant event, but there’s no need to overstate it. We’ve been dealing with this front for decades, alone,” Eisenkot said, speaking at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya at an annual event honoring former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

These were the Israeli general’s first public comments about the American withdrawal decision.

“This was an American decision. The IDF has been working independently this whole time, including during the period of American and Russian presence,” said Eisenkot, whose term ends in mid-January.

Israeli officials have been loath to publicly criticize the US decision to remove its troops from Syria, even as defense analysts warned that the move would serve as a significant boon to the Jewish state’s nemesis Iran and to the openly antagonistic Turkey.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked came closest on Sunday, warning the move “doesn’t help us,” though she insisted Israel would still be capable of defending itself.

Shaked’s pro-settlement Jewish Home party has been openly supportive of Trump, especially after his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last December and subsequent move of the US embassy to the capital in May.

In an interview Sunday morning on Army Radio, she cautioned that the US withdrawal strengthened the “anti-Semitic war criminal” Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, but tried to tamp down concerns that it would hurt Israel’s security.

“It’s certainly not a good thing,” she said of Trump’s decision, but added, “The president of the United States, Donald Trump, is a great friend of Israel, and this administration is, I think, the friendliest administration there’s ever been.”

She warned: “This step doesn’t help Israel. It strengthens Erdogan, an anti-Semitic war criminal who carries out massacres of the Kurdish people, and does so with a wink from the international community.”

In this file from November 4, 2018, US forces patrol the Kurdish-held town of Al-Darbasiyah in northeastern Syria. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

Israel, she insisted, “will still know how to defend ourselves after this withdrawal, if it takes place. It’s true this opens more avenues for passage between Iran and Syria, but just as we know how to defend ourselves now, we’ll know how to deal with the new situation.”

Trump’s announcement appeared to upend US policy in the region, leading to the angry resignations of the US defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and the administration’s coordinator of anti-Islamic State efforts, State Department official Brett McGurk.

Though most top Israeli government officials have publicly refrained from criticizing the move, Channel 10 quoted a senior diplomatic official on Friday harshly criticizing Trump’s decision.

“Trump threw us under the wheels of the semi-truck of the Russian army, the one that transfers weapons to Syria and Hezbollah,” the unnamed official said.

The pullout came as a surprise to US commanders in the field, according to media reports, and contradicted the policy statements of top administration officials. Earlier this year, Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton vowed that the US would remain in Syria as long as Iranian forces were deployed there.

Just last week McGurk, a Barack Obama appointee whom Trump kept on, said “nobody is declaring a mission accomplished” in the battle against IS — just days before the US president announced victory against the jihadist movement.

Trump on Saturday said that the jihadist group “is largely defeated.”

US Marine Corps tactical vehicles are seen driving along a road near the town of Tal Baydar in the countryside of Syria’s northeastern Hasakeh province on December 21, 2018. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

“When I became President, ISIS was going wild,” the US president tweeted. “Now ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!”

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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