Israeli official ‘in shock’ as Trump says Iran ‘can do what they want’ in Syria

‘It is sad that he is not attentive to intelligence materials,’ senior Jerusalem source quoted as saying of US president

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

A senior Israeli official on Thursday reportedly criticized US President Donald Trump for appearing to give Iran free rein to further entrench militarily in Syria.

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

“It is sad that he is not attentive to intelligence materials,” the unnamed Israeli source said, according to a Thursday report by 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.”

Trump’s comments came two weeks after he rattled Jerusalem by announcing that he would pull all American troops out of Syria. US soldiers had been leading the coalition against the Islamic State terror group, while also helping to thwart the establishment of permanent Iranian military infrastructure in Syria.

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)

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.

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 — Prime Minister Benjamin 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, US Secretary of State Mike 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 contributed to this report.

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