Tillerson rejects Israeli official’s claim that US is ‘not in the game’ in Syria

Secretary of state characterizes as ‘false’ Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren’s assessment that Washington has ‘almost no leverage on the ground’

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gestures at a press conference in Buenos Aires on February 4, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO RAGGIO)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gestures at a press conference in Buenos Aires on February 4, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / ALBERTO RAGGIO)

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday rejected an assessment by an Israeli deputy minister that Washington has little leverage in Syria and is “not in the game.”

Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren (Kulanu) told Bloomberg on Sunday following the recent flare-up along the country’s northern border that America “has almost no leverage on the ground” in Syria.

“The American part of the equation is to back us up,” he said. “America did not ante up in Syria. It’s not in the game,”

Tillerson pushed back against this notion.

“The United States and the coalition forces that are working with us to defeat (Islamic State) today control 30 percent of the Syrian territory, and control a large amount of population, and control a large amount of Syria’s oil fields,” he told reporters. “So I think…this observation that the US has little leverage or role to play is simply false.”

Kulanu MK Michael Oren, June 20, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He added that Washington was “very active” in international talks to resolve the ongoing conflict in the Arab nation, “and we’re working very closely with Russia, who has the greatest influence on the Assad regime and can bring Assad and the regime to the negotiating table.”

Israel has held talks with both the US and Russia in its efforts to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria, where Moscow has a military presence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held a series of meetings in recent months with Putin on Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon. The prime minister has been seeking to persuade Russia to limit Iran’s presence near Israeli territory and to stop it from gaining a military foothold in Syria.

And following the weekend’s aerial clashes along the Syrian front, Israel appealed to Russia to intervene and prevent further escalation.

Over the weekend, an Iranian drone penetrated Israel’s airspace from Syrian territory, which elicited an Israeli military response of cross-border strikes targeting Iranian assets in Syria. Returning from the mission, one of Israel’s F-16 fighter jets crashed in northern Israel after being hit by anti-aircraft fire from Syrian forces.

A picture taken on February 10, 2018, shows Israeli solders taking positions in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria. (AFP/ JALAA MAREY)

This led Israel to launch a widespread retaliatory offensive in Syria. The IDF said it hit four Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, including the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker.

The White House expressed support for Israel’s retaliatory military strikes in Syria and called on Iran to “cease provocative actions” in the region.

“Israel is a staunch ally of the United States, and we support its right to defend itself from the Iranian-backed Syrian and militia forces in southern Syria,” a statement by US President Donald Trump’s office read, echoing earlier comments by the State Department and the Pentagon.

Tillerson has said he does not plan to add a stop in Jerusalem during his visit to the Middle East this week, despite the flare-up.

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