Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his cautious imprimatur to the US decision to pull its forces out of Syria Wednesday, saying US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had assured him that the US will continue to influence events in Syria.
But opposition leaders warned that the US departure would undermine Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran deepening its presence across the northern border, and said President Donald Trump’s decision to leave marked a diplomatic failure by the prime minister.
The surprise announcement of the US pullout Wednesday will seriously impact America’s role in the region, including its capacity to support Israeli efforts to keep Iran from deepening its foothold in the war-torn country.
“I spoke with US President Donald Trump [on Monday] and yesterday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told me that it was the president’s intention to withdraw their forces from Syria and made it clear that they had other ways to express their influence in the arena,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
“This is, of course, America’s decision,” he added. “We will study the timetable, the mode of operation, and of course the implications for us. In any case, we will take care to protect Israel’s security and to protect ourselves from that arena.”
Israel’s Channel 10 news reported 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.
A US official told AFP that Trump’s decision was finalized Tuesday. “Full withdrawal, all means all,” the official said when asked if US troops would be pulled from all of Syria.
Trump seemed to confirm a string of media reports which cited US officials as saying the withdrawal was already prepared and would be rapidly carried out. The president tweeted that the Islamic State had been “defeated” in Syria and that eradicating the jihadist terror group was the only reason troops were still in the war-torn country.
Opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union tweeted that Trump’s statement that IS was the purpose of the US mission showed a dangerous disregard for the growing Iranian presence.
“The USA is withdrawing its forces from Syria with the claim that IS was the only reason for them being in the country, the disregard for Iranian entrenchment in Syria is dangerous to Israel,” she tweeted. “A political-security failure recorded under Netanyahu’s name.”
Yesh Atid party head MK Yair Lapid said that the US withdrawal constituted a failure in Israel’s foreign policy which would enable Iran to increase its foothold in Syria.
“It opens the way for Iranian entrenchment and diminishes Israel’s bargaining ability with the Russians,” he said.
Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli wrote that the reported withdrawal was one of Netanyahu’s “most serious failures.”
“A failure in preventing a withdrawal of US forces from Syria and the abandonment of Israel to the mercy of Russia and Iran on the northern front,” she wrote. “Worst of all, he does not even have room to maneuver in a campaign against Trump. A resounding political and security failure, very bad for Israel’s security.”
Reuters cited a US official saying the Trump had made the decision to pull out the troops while on a phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call,” the official said.
Currently, about 2,000 US forces are in Syria, most of them on a train-and-advise mission to support local forces fighting IS. The official would not provide a timeline for a withdrawal, saying only: “We will ensure force protection is adequately maintained, but as quickly as possible.”
Iran, together with its proxy the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group, has been helping the Syrian regime end a rebellion which began seven years ago. Russia, a Syria ally has also been assisting Damascus against the rebels.
Israel Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said Israel will respect the US decision, but vowed the country will do whatever it needs to protect its citizens, no matter which foreign forces are in Syria.
“It is a US decision, we respect the decision made by the administration,” Danon told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York. “We have our concerns about Syria, about the threat of Iranian troops in Syria, and we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people, regardless if you have American troops, Russian troops, or any other nation.”
Israel has repeatedly vowed to prevent Iran establishing a permanent presence in Syria and Lebanon and has carried out dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
In April, two US officials told the Associated Press that a phone call at the time between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grew tense over Israeli objections to US plans to leave Syria within six months.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, said the president’s decision was shortsighted. “President @realDonaldTrump is right to want to contain Iranian expansion,” Graham said on Twitter. “However, withdrawal of our forces in Syria mightily undercuts that effort and put our allies, the Kurds at risk.”
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, called the decision “extraordinarily short-sighted and naive.”
“This move will look like a ‘withdrawal,’ not a ‘victory,’ and yet more evidence of the dangerous unpredictability of the US president,” Lister said. “This is not just a dream scenario for ISIS, but also for Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, all of whom stand to benefit substantially from a US withdrawal.”