US President Donald Trump’s top security adviser said Sunday that US troops would remain in Syria as long as Iran continues to “menace” the region, seemingly reversing a promise by the White House to pull out sooner.
Trump said in April that US troops would be leaving Syria right away, drawing consternation from Israeli officials, who saw the arena being ceded to Russia, an ally of Iran.
On Sunday, though, Trump national security adviser John Bolton said troops would remain as long as Iran was causing trouble in the region.
“I think the president has made it clear that we are there until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East,” he told ABC’s “This Week.”
Bolton said the topic would be discussed by Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two meet for their first official summit in Helsinki Monday.
Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov said Friday that Syria and the Iranian presence there will feature high on the agenda of the summit.
Israel and Russia have long been rumored to be hammering out a deal on the status of Iran’s forces in Syria, as the civil war in the nation winds down and President Bashar Assad regains much of the territory he lost to rebel forces during seven years of fighting.
On April 4, Trump told a rally that the US would be “coming out of Syria very soon.”
The comment drew immediate concern from US allies in the region — mainly Israel, Kurdish groups and Gulf states — that Washington would leave a power vacuum to be filled by the Syria-Russia-Iran axis. The plan was also opposed by many US defense officials.
US officials said a phone call between Trump and Netanyahu that day grew tense over the issue, a rare sign of discord between the two leaders who have almost always been in lockstep on Iran and other issues.
According to Israeli officials speaking to al-Monitor, Trump told Netanyahu he was committed to Israel’s security but would not change his mind on withdrawing the troops.
“Ostensibly, when it comes to the situation of Iran along our northern border, there is no difference between his [Trump’s] position and that of Obama,” an unnamed Israeli minister told al-Monitor in April. “In the end, they both made the same decision to get out of here as fast as they can and not allow the Middle Eastern quagmire to cost America more than it already has.”
The administration later clarified that the pullout would not take place as long as the IS still had a presence in Syria. No mention, however, was ever made of Iran — Israel’s main foe in the conflict.
The US has some 2,000 troops in Syria. It has never offered a timetable for withdrawing them, but the move would fall in line with Trump’s “America First” stance.
Bolton, seen as a war hawk, was not in the government when Trump made the initial announcement on pulling out of Syria.
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in post-war Syria. Tensions have been brewing along the border in recent months, with Israel launching attacks on Iranian targets in Syria in response to Iranian rocket fire and drone incursions into Israel.
Other airstrikes on Syrian facilities used by Iran or its proxies have also been attributed to Israel, including a strike Sunday night near Aleppo.
On Saturday, Netanyahu and Trump discussed Syria and Iran in a phone call, the Israeli premier said Sunday.
“We discussed security and diplomatic issues in light of developments in the region, with Syria and Iran first and foremost, of course,” Netanyahu said at his weekly cabinet meeting. “I thanked President Trump for his strong policy against Iran because since this policy has been taken, we have seen a great effect on – and inside – Iran. President Trump clearly reiterated his commitment to the security of Israel and his willingness to help the State of Israel in various fields and, of course, I thanked him for that.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.