Netanyahu: US Syria pullout won’t stop Israel from acting against Iranian forces

PM vows Israel will ‘expand operations’ if necessary to ensure Tehran can’t establish a base, says cooperation with US continues in full force

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 2, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on December 2, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw all troops from Syria will not change Israel’s policy of acting against Iranian attempts to establish bases in the neighboring country.

The prime minister added that cooperation with the United States has not been affected by the move, and continues on multiple levels.

“The decision to remove the 2,000 US troops from Syria will not change our consistent policy — we will continue to act against Iran’s attempts to establish military bases in Syria, and if necessary we will even expand our operations there,” the prime minister said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“I want to reassure anyone who is concerned: Our cooperation with the United States continues in full force and is carried out in many areas — operational, intelligence and many other security spheres,” Netanyahu added.

Netanyahu told ministers from his Likud party that he plans to discuss the US withdrawal with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo when the two travel to Brazil for the inauguration of President-elect Jair Bolsonoro next week, Channel 10 news reported.

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)

Netanyahu spoke with Trump on the phone last Thursday about the US military withdrawal from Syria, amid concerns the pullout from the war-torn country would enable further Iranian entrenchment.

The two leaders discussed “ways to continue cooperation between Israel and the United States against Iranian aggression,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said. It did not provide further details.

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu said Israel would increase its activity in Syria to counter Iran’s influence and proxy militias.

“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.

US President Donald Trump receives applause after signing the “First Step Act” and the “Juvenile Justice Reform Act” at the White House in Washington, DC, on December 21, 2018. (Jim WATSON / AFP)

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.

The same evening, Netanyahu released a video statement saying Pompeo had assured him that the US would continue to influence events in Syria.

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.

In April, two US officials told The Associated Press that a phone call at the time between Trump and Netanyahu grew tense over Israeli objections to US plans to leave Syria within six months.

Though Trump has in the past said he intended to pull American troops out of Syria, last 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.

Israeli soldiers guard the Quneitra Crossing on the Syrian border with the Golan Heights on September 27, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

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.

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.

Earlier on Sunday, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot called the White House’s decision to pull its troops from Syria a “significant event,” but said the Israeli military would continue to independently fight Iran’s military presence in the neighboring country.

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