A rift between Israel and the United States regarding Iranian entrenchment in Syria appears to be widening, ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled meeting on Monday with US President Donald Trump.
Israeli officials have reportedly been complaining the Americans aren’t doing enough to limit Tehran’s influence in neighboring Syria. While the issue is seen in Israel as an acute and critical threat, the US officials were downplaying it as a minor concern for Washington.
“There is a big gap between Washington’s talk and their actions,” a senior Israeli official dealing with the Syrian front was quoted as saying Wednesday by Channel 10.
“It is convenient for the Americans to let us be their proxy against Iran in Syria,” the official added. “We are very worried.”
In recent years, Israel has repeatedly warned that Iran is trying to entrench itself militarily in Syria and provide Hezbollah with increasingly accurate missiles, with which the terrorist group can threaten the Jewish state.
General Joseph Votel, head of the US’s Central Command, said on Tuesday that the US mission in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State terror organization, rather than acting against Iran.
In their meeting at the White House next week, Netanyahu will try to persuade Trump to take immediate action against Iran in Syria, to curb its military spread and also its potential diplomatic influence in case of a future agreement ending the country’s bloody civil war, the Channel 10 report said.
Jerusalem’s frustration over the US policy in Syria was primarily voiced behind closed doors in Israel’s high-level security cabinet, the TV report added, but has become public in recent days.
“Let me be direct. There is a need for greater American involvement in making sure that Iran doesn’t turn Syria into a puppet state,” Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan last week told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Every day that Iran entrenches itself in Syria brings war closer. There is no vacuum.”
“If the US chooses not to be a major player in shaping the future of Syria then others will — and trust me, it won’t be the democratically elected representatives of the Syrian people,” Erdan added in his message, apparently also directed at the Trump administration.
US officials have recently spoken up about the Iranian threat in Syria, with some calling on the Trump administration to take action.
Senators Lindsey Graham, a Republican of South Carolina, and Chris Coons, a Democrat of Delaware, urged Washington on Tuesday to develop a clearer policy to counter Iran’s influence in the region, and also to deal with its ally Russia.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January laid out a strategy in Syria for the day after IS is defeated, arguing that the American army should stay to rein in Tehran.
“US disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” he said.
“As we have seen from Iran’s proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel,” Tillerson added. “As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.”
On Tuesday, US General Votel told a House committee in a 45-page set of prepared remarks that “while we continue to confront the scourge of terrorism, Iran’s malign activities across the region pose a long-term threat to stability in this part of the world.”
Votel said that the army had made significant gains against IS, adding that Iran could exploit the focus on the terror group to make political, security and financial agreements with some actors in the region.
His report said the Islamic Republic was attempting to establish a corridor, or a “Shiite Crescent,” across the Middle East, Voice of America reported.
“What Israel is signaling in different ways is that there’s a real security threat here. There’s a concern, and we certainly understand it,” a US official “intimately involved in the Trump administration’s Syria policy” was quoted Wednesday by Channel 10 as saying.
“However, until the IS fight can be continued, the ability to cogently and comprehensively deal with the challenge Iran poses is of necessity something that cannot be addressed as well as we would like, as well as others would like. And we’ve made that clear. There’s a tiering here of threats and priorities,” the official said.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.