US President Donald Trump on Tuesday appeared to dial back a promise to withdraw US troops from Syria immediately, saying it was important to not allow Iranian influence to grow in the country.
Stating that troops would be coming home soon, Trump nonetheless said that the United States wanted to “leave a strong and lasting footprint” in the country.
“We don’t want to give Iran open season to the Mediterranean,” Trump told a joint press conference with his visiting French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.
“We’re going to be coming home relatively soon,” he said. “We finished at least almost our work with respect to ISIS in Syria, ISIS in Iraq, and we have done a job that nobody has been able to do.”
“But with that being said, I do want to come home, but I want to come home also with having accomplished what we have to accomplish,” he added.
The US has more than 2,000 military personnel in eastern Syria, working with local militia groups to defeat the extremist Islamic State group while trying to keep out of Syria’s broader civil war.
A US withdrawal from Syria has raised fears in Israel of Iran’s continued efforts to expand its foothold in Syria, where Jerusalem worries it is setting up bases for use in attacks against Israel.
Israel sees Iran, which has vowed to destroy the Jewish state, as its central enemy in the region. Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that Israel will not allow Iran to entrench itself in Syria, marking it as a “red line” that it will fight for militarily if necessary.
While the US has said it supports Israel’s efforts to thwart Iranian expansionism, officials in Jerusalem have quietly expressed fears that the arena is being ceded by Washington to Russia, which is allied with Iran and Assad.
Trump’s Tuesday remarks come amid a period of high tensions between Israel, Syria, and Iran, following a deadly airstrike on an alleged Iranian facility in central Syria, which has been attributed to the Israeli Air Force. Israel officially will not comment on the strike.
On April 9, Israel allegedly struck the T-4 air base in central Syria where Iran has reportedly been operating a fully functional air base of its own and where it has centered its attack drone operations. At least seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were killed in the strike.
While refusing to comment on whether it carried out the strike, a few days later Israel revealed for the first time that an Iranian drone dispatched from T-4 in February was an attack drone that carried explosives and was headed to an unspecified location in Israel when it was shot down 30 seconds after entering Israeli airspace.
Israel lost an F-16 in retaliatory raids hours after the drone was downed on February 10, the first loss of a fighter jet in action in 35 years. The Israeli plane was hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire, and crashed in Israel; the two pilots ejected to safety.
Following the downing of the F-16, Israeli aircraft targeted Syria’s air defenses, destroying between one-third and one-half of them, according to Israeli military estimates.
Since the strike earlier this month, a number of senior Iranian officials threatened Israel with annihilation. Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi, the commander of Iran’s army, said Saturday that his forces were working to ensure “arrogant system will collapse and the Zionist regime will be annihilated.”
On Friday, the vice commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned the Jewish state that its airbases are “within reach,” and vowed Israelis will have “nowhere to run, except to fall into the sea.”
As Iran stepped up it threats against Israel, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned Tehran over the weekend not to even consider an attack on the Jewish state, which he said has never been better prepared to counter Iran.
“I would suggest to all those on our northern border to think again about what they are doing,” Liberman said during a tour of the Gaza border area.
“It’s seriously not worth it for you to test the IDF, nor the State of Israel,” he said. “We are ready for every scenario. We are ready for a multi-front scenario and I don’t remember a time when we were so prepared and so ready, both the army and the people of Israel.”