PM: We're using 'special means' to destroy Hezbollah tunnels

Netanyahu: We will step up our efforts against Iran in Syria after US pullout

After sudden US announcement it’s removing troops from Syria, prime minister says Israel still has full American support

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Thursday that Israel would step up its fight against Iran’s military presence in Syria, amid concerns that the US military’s announced pullout from the war-torn country would limit the Jewish state’s ability to operate there.

“We will continue to aggressively act against Iran’s efforts to entrench in Syria,” said Netanyahu, who also serves as Israel’s foreign minister and defense minister.

“We do not plan to reduce our efforts. We will increase them, and I know that we will do this with the full support and backing from the United States of America,” he said, speaking at a trilateral summit in Beersheba with leaders from Greece and Cyprus.

Netanyahu also discussed the military’s operation to locate and destroy cross-border attack tunnels that Israel says the Hezbollah terror group dug from southern Lebanon.

Israeli soldiers gather near digging equipment used to locate Hezbollah attack tunnels along the border with Lebanon, near the northern Israeli town of Metula on December 19, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“We are continuing in our efforts to thwart those terror tunnels. We are now using special means in order to specially neutralize these tunnels,” he said.

The Israeli military refused to comment on the subject.

On Wednesday, the White House shocked the world — and its own defense and foreign policy officials — by declaring that the US had fulfilled its mission in Syria of defeating the Islamic State terror group and was therefore planning to remove its troops from the country. Defense analysts and officials from around the world largely rejected the claim that IS had been defeated, citing the terror group’s thousands of fighters still operating inside Syria despite its territorial losses.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable discussion about school safety at the White House, December 18, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Though US President Donald 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.

For Israel, the pullout leaves it without a staunch ally in the fight against Iran in Syria and 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.

A US soldier walks on a newly installed position, near the tense front line between the US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018. (AP/Hussein Malla)

Israel has repeatedly vowed to prevent Iran establishing a permanent presence in Syria and Lebanon and has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in recent years against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Netanyahu’s comments on Thursday were his second round of public remarks since Trump made the announcement.

On Wednesday evening, Netanyahu released a video statement, saying US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had assured him that the US will continue to influence events in Syria.

“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.

“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.”

But Israeli opposition leaders warned that the US departure would undermine Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran deepening its presence across the northern border, and said Trump’s decision to leave marked a diplomatic failure by the prime minister.

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.

US President Donald Trump (right) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 26, 2018, in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. (AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm)

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 head Tzipi Livni attends a faction meeting in the Israeli parliament on November 19, 2018 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

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.

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.

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.

Vehicles of the US-backed coalition forces in the northern Syrian town of Manbij, May 8, 2018. (Delil souleiman/AFP)

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.”

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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