WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump on Wednesday gave Iran free rein to further entrench itself in Syria, but claimed that Tehran was no longer seeking to bolster its presence in the beleaguered country.
“They can do what they want there, frankly,” he told reporters, referring to Iranian forces.
Trump’s comments came two weeks after he rattled Jerusalem by announcing that he would pull all American troops out of Syria. US soldiers had been leading the coalition against the Islamic State terror group, while also helping to thwart a permanent Iranian infrastructure in the war-torn country.
Israel has repeatedly warned in recent years that Iran is seeking to establish a military presence in Syria, where it is fighting alongside its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah and Russia to restore the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Israeli officials have also warned that America’s absence would open the door for Tehran to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.
Over the last several years, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran.
Yet Trump, on Wednesday, said that Tehran, like the US, was withdrawing its forces from Syria.
“Iran is no longer the same country,” he said. “Iran is pulling people out of Syria. They can do what they want there, frankly, but they’re pulling people out. They’re pulling people out of Yemen. Iran wants to survive now.”
The president went on to say that in pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran last year, Washington had changed Tehran’s calculus and stymied its efforts to destabilize, and spread its influence throughout, the region.
“Iran was going to take over everything and destroy Israel while they’re at it. Iran is a much different country right now,” he said, in comments that were at times incoherent. “They’re having riots every week in every country. I’d love to negotiate with Iran… but Iran is a much different country right now.”
Trump’s decision to pull America’s 2,000 troops out from Syria caused a major shakeup within his own administration; his secretary of defense, James Mattis, resigned over the withdrawal.
Trump offered a stark take on the situation in Syria Wednesday, summing it up in two words — “sand and death” — while remaining vague about the timing of the US troop withdrawal.
“So Syria was lost long ago. It was lost long ago. And besides that, I don’t want — we’re talking about sand and death. That’s what we’re talking about,” Trump said during a cabinet meeting. “We’re not talking about vast wealth. We’re talking about sand and death.”
On when US forces would leave Syria, Trump said: “I don’t want to be in Syria forever.”
He added: “I never said we are getting out overnight… We’re withdrawing… over a period of time.”
The president’s announcement of the Syrian withdrawal was the first significant point of contention between Washington and Jerusalem since he took office — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly pleaded with him to rethink the decision — and has fortified the perception that he views the US relationship with Israel as transactional.
On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Netanyahu that the planned withdrawal of US ground forces from Syria will not alter America’s commitment to countering Iranian aggression and maintaining Israel’s security.
“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 in Brazil.
Trump said last week that he did not think America’s removing its troops from Syria would endanger Israel by strengthening Tehran’s hand in one of the Jewish state’s immediate neighbors to the north.
“Well, I don’t see it. I spoke with Bibi,” he said. “I told Bibi. And, you know, we give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they’re doing very well defending themselves, if you take a look… So that’s the way it is.”
Trump blamed Syria’s instability on the policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who didn’t attack Assad after he crossed the former US president’s “red line” of using chemical weapons on his own people.
“You can’t make a threat and then do nothing. So Syria was lost long ago,” Trump said. “Beside that, we’re talking about sand and death. We’re not talking about vast wealth.”
Times of Israel staff and Agencies contributed to this report.