US Defense Secretary James Mattis has cancelled a trip to Israel planned for next week after submitting his resignation in the wake of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US forces out of Syria, Israeli television reported Friday.
Mattis’s talks in Israel had been set to focus on Iran and Syria, according to Channel 10 news.
The former marine general’s decision to resign came after Trump’s sudden announcement Wednesday that he would withdraw all American troops from Syria, saying they had completed their task of defeating the Islamic State jihadist group. That claim has been largely rejected by defense analysts and officials from around the world.
Trump’s declaration was met with profound concern in Israel, with the US presence in Syria seen as a barrier to Iran’s military efforts there.
A senior Israeli official quoted by Channel 10 said Mattis had informed Israeli leaders Trump might pull out American soldiers from Syria. It was not specified when Mattis reportedly said this.
Channel 10 news reported Wednesday that Netanyahu tried in vain to persuade Trump to change his mind, and that there was tremendous “disappointment” in Jerusalem over the pullout, which is regarded as a victory for Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
The TV report described the US move as “a slap in the face” for Israel, noting that the US presence in Syria was “the only bargaining chip” in Israel’s efforts to persuade Russia to prevent Iran deepening its entrenchment in Syria.
Though 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 New York Times said Israeli intelligence officials “felt betrayed by the United States withdrawal.”
Israel has repeatedly warned in recent years over Iran’s efforts to establish a military presence in Syria, where it is fighting alongside Russia and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
For Israel, the pullout leaves it without a staunch ally in the fight against Iran in Syria and also potentially opens the door for the Islamic Republic to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
Until now, American troops have been stationed in northeastern Syria, along the Iraqi border, blocking such a corridor, through which Iran could more easily distribute advanced weapons and technology throughout the region, especially to its Lebanese client the Hezbollah terrorist army.
Netanyahu spoke with Trump about the drawdown from Syria on Thursday, after which his office said they discussed “ways to continue cooperation between Israel and the United States against Iranian aggression.”
In recent years Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against targets linked to Iran, whose leaders have called for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Mattis went to the White House Thursday to resign after failing to persuade the president in a tense Oval Office meeting to change his decision on withdrawing troops from Syria, according to two people with knowledge of the conversation but not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Though Trump has in the past said he intended to pull American troops out of Syria, Wednesday’s announcement caught many State Department and Department of Defense officials off guard.
Many details of the plan to remove the approximately 2,000 US troops from Syria remain unclear, notably the exact timeline.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.