US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday assured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the planned withdrawal of US ground forces from Syria will not alter Washington’s commitment to countering Iranian aggression and maintaining Israel’s security.
Pompeo met Netanyahu in Brazil where the Israeli prime minister is on an official visit, and both men were to attend the inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
“The decision by the president on Syria in no way changes anything that this administration is working on alongside Israel,” Pompeo said at a joint press conference with Netanyahu before they held talks.
Israeli officials are concerned that the planned withdrawal of the 2,000 US military personnel from Syria will create a military vacuum enabling Iran to increase its foothold in the country, where it is supporting the Syrian regime in ending the country’s civil war. The US forces have been assisting local militias in defeating the Islamic State terror group in the country.
“The counter-IS campaign continues, our efforts to counter Iranian aggression continues, and our commitment to Middle East stability and the protection of Israel continues in the same way it did before that decision was made. So we have a lot to talk about today.
“We will work closely together to make sure we get this right,” Pompeo noted.
Speaking of Israel’s military operation to find and destroy attack tunnels it says were dug by Hezbollah under the border from Lebanon into Israel, Pompeo gave his backing for what has been dubbed IDF Operation Northern Shield. So far the Israeli army has said it found five such tunnels since the operation was launched on December 4.
“We understand the threat that that violation of Israeli sovereignty presents to the region and the country, that threat from Iranian Hezbollah,” Pompeo said.
Netanyahu said the talks will focus on Syria and stymieing what he termed “Iranian aggression in the Middle East.”
“We have a lot to discuss,” Netanyahu said. “We’re going to discuss the intense cooperation between Israel and the United States, which will also deal with the questions following the decision, the American decisions on Syria — on how to intensify even further our intelligence and operations cooperation in Syria and elsewhere to block Iranian aggression in the Middle East, to roll it back.”
“That’s a common aim, and I have to say that I’m also very appreciative of the support, strong support and unequivocal support that you and the president gave our efforts at self-defense against Syria and Hezbollah just in the last few days.”
On Monday the New York Times reported that US President Donald Trump has agreed to allow the US military to gradually pull troops out of Syria over a period of about four months, rather than the rapid withdrawal he had initially indicated when announcing the measure.
The report came after a senior Israeli official said that Netanyahu has asked Trump to stagger the US withdrawal over a lengthy period of time, rather than carry out an immediate pullout. The White House is considering the request and is inclined to agree, the official said.
Trump had stunned allies — and prompted the resignation of his respected defense secretary, Jim Mattis — by abruptly announcing on December 19 that the Islamic State jihadists were defeated and that US troops in Syria were ready to leave.
Israel in recent years has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran, which alongside its proxies and Russia is fighting on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Israel has accused Iran of seeking to establish a military presence in Syria that could threaten Israeli security, and of attempting to transfer advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.