Trump says US will ‘protect’ Israel, keep eye on Iran from Iraqi base

President tells CBS Syria pullout moving ahead, promises US forces can be sent back quickly if need be

US President Donald Trump and son Barron Trump board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, en route to Palm Beach, Florida, on February 1, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
US President Donald Trump and son Barron Trump board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, en route to Palm Beach, Florida, on February 1, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

President Donald Trump said the US military would continue to protect Israel, but vowed to push ahead with a controversial troop withdrawal from Syria, in an interview aired Sunday.

Trump announced in December that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria, sparking worries that the move could leave Israeli and Kurdish allies in the lurch and open the way for Iran, Turkey and Russia to expand their influence in the war-torn country.

Trump told CBS’s Face the Nation the 2,000 US troops in the country to assist local forces would leave “in a matter of time,” and cited the need to “protect Israel and other things that we have” for slowing down — after initially announcing an immediate pull-out.

He said troops could keep an eye on Iranian activity from a base in Iraq, which he said the US would not give up, though insisted he would not use it to attack the Islamic Republic.

“We spent a fortune on building this incredible base. We might as well keep it. And one of the reasons I want to keep it is because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is a real problem,” he said.

“All I want to do is be able to watch. We have an unbelievable and expensive military base built in Iraq. It’s perfectly situated for looking at all over different parts of the troubled Middle East rather than pulling up,” he said.

Members of the Maghawir al-Thawra Syrian opposition group receive firearms training from US Army Special Forces soldiers at the al-Tanf military outpost in southern Syria on October 22, 2018. (AP/ Lolita Baldor)

Trump’s abrupt announcement in December he would pull all American soldiers from Syria, saying the Islamic State had been defeated, set off alarm bells in Israel, which has being carrying out a campaign to prevent an Iranian military presence there.

Israeli officials have pointed to the al-Tanf base in southern Syria, near the borders with Iraq and Jordan, as key to curbing Iranian attempts to smuggle weapons to Syria and Lebanon.

The planned withdrawal has driven a rare wedge between his administration and Jerusalem, and sparked a rebuke from friendly lawmakers in Washington.

Last week, the Senate voted on a measure opposing the withdrawal. An amendment from the congressional body said that Islamic State and Al-Qaeda still pose a threat to US interests and that a US withdrawal would “allow terrorists to regroup, destabilize critical regions and create vacuums that could be filled by Iran or Russia.”

A convoy of US troops drive along a road leading to the front line with Turkish-backed fighters in north Syria, March 31, 2018. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

Trump defended the policy Sunday saying that IS has lost 99 percent of its land. “We will be announcing in the not too distant future 100%,” Trump said.

In a report to Congress last week, US intelligence leaders warned that IS still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria, and they could easily spring back in the absence of US forces.

Trump responded by rebuking as “naive” and “wrong” his intelligence chiefs, who also had appeared to contradict him on Iran and North Korea.

“When I look at Iran, I look at Iran as a nation that has caused tremendous problems,” he said in the interview. “So when my intelligence people tell me how wonderful Iran is – if you don’t mind, I’m going to just go by my own counsel.”

Members of the military cheer as US President Donald Trump speaks at a hanger rally at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on December 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

He played down the danger of an extremist resurgence, but said, “We’ll come back if we have to.”

“You’re going to always have pockets of something,” he said. “But you’re not going to keep armies there because you have a few people. Or you even have fairly reasonable numbers of people.”

Moreover, he argued that US could return to Syria if there were to be a resurgence of IS.

“We’ll come back if we have to. We have very fast airplanes, we have very good cargo planes. We can come back very quickly, and I’m not leaving,” Trump said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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