Minister: Trump’s Syria pullout ‘doesn’t help’ Israel, emboldens Erdogan

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked says surprise US withdrawal ‘certainly not a good thing,’ but vows Israel ‘will still know how to defend ourselves’

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in Jerusalem on October 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in Jerusalem on October 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the latest expression of Israel’s concern over US President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement that he was pulling US troops from Syria, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on Sunday warned the move “doesn’t help us,” but 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.

Trump’s declaration was also met with profound concern in Israel, with the US presence in Syria seen as a barrier to Iran’s military efforts there.

Channel 10 news reported Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin 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 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 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!”

According to reports, Trump appears to have made the decision to withdraw after a December 14 call with Erdogan in which he is said to have asked the Turkish president to finish up the fight against IS.

Turkey’s forces in Syria have also been battling US-allied Kurdish forces in a bid to prevent the formation of a Kurdish-dominated enclave on the Turkish border.

After McGurk announced his resignation, Trump took aim at the diplomat on Twitter, referring to him as a “grandstander” who was quitting just before his time was up.

McGurk, 45, was set to leave his position in February, but reportedly felt he could no longer continue in the job after Trump’s declaration and on Friday evening informed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of his intention to wrap up at year’s end.

His conclusion mirrored that of Mattis, who was seen as a voice of moderation in the mercurial Trump White House and quit after telling the president he could not go along with the Syria decision.

US President Donald Trump with, from left, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Mark Milley, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, listen to questions from members of the media during a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House on October 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The troop pullout will leave thousands of Kurdish fighters — which the Pentagon spent years training and arming against IS — vulnerable to Turkish attack.

On Saturday, a senior Kurdish official called on the United States to prevent a potential Turkish offensive against areas in northern Syria inhabited by Kurds, calling it America’s “duty to prevent any attack and to put an end to Turkish threats.”

A file photo taken on April 25, 2017, shows a US military officer (R) speaking with a fighter from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) at the site of Turkish airstrikes near the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik, known as al-Malikiyah in Arabic. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

The US has for years supported the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the fight against IS in Syria.

Aldar Khalil, a key player in establishing Syria’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region in 2013, said the US and its partners “must honor their commitments.”

Heavyweight adviser Mattis — a decorated Marine general who was often referred to as “the last adult in the room” — made clear in his resignation letter that pulling out of Syria crossed the line.

The departures of Mattis and now McGurk follow those of national security advisor H.R. McMaster and White House chief of staff John Kelly.

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