US officials: Trump-Netanyahu call grew tense over plans to leave Syria

US president is said to stand alone in haste to withdraw troops from war-torn country, to dismay of security agencies and allies

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House on  March 5, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House on March 5, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mandel Ngan)

A phone call Wednesday between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump grew tense over Israeli objections to US plans to leave Syria, US administration officials said Wednesday, adding that Trump wants to pull out all troops within six months to the dismay of the country’s main security agencies and allies.

A short statement from the White House early Wednesday said Netanyahu and Trump had discussed “recent developments in the Middle East” during their phone conversation, without clarifying what developments were addressed or what was said.

It said that “President Trump reiterated the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security,” and added that “the two leaders agreed to continue their close coordination on countering Iran’s malign influence and destabilizing activities.”

Netanyahu later tweeted that he “thanked President Trump for his commitment to Israel’s security and America’s support for Israel at the United Nations.”

But two US officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday the talks grew tense because of Israeli concerns that the United States will withdraw from Syria in the near future and allow its enemies  — primarily Iran — to gain a further foothold in a neighboring country through its various proxies.

US President Donald Trump looks on during a press conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, DC, April 3, 2018. (Olivier Douliery/AFP)

Officials also said Trump is dramatically scaling back the country’s goals in Syria as he pushes for a quick military withdrawal, abandoning plans to stay long-term to stabilize the country and prevent the Islamic State terror group from re-emerging.

Trump has given no formal order to pull out the 2,000 US troops currently in Syria, nor offered a public timetable, other than to say the United States will pull out just as soon as the last remaining IS fighters can be vanquished. But Trump has signaled to his advisers that ideally, he wants all troops out within six months, three US officials told The Associated Press — a finale that would come shortly before the US midterm elections.

In his haste to withdraw from Syria, Trump stands alone. The Pentagon, the State Department and CIA are all deeply concerned about the potential ramifications if the US leaves behind a power vacuum in Syria, as are Israel, Arab leaders and other nations in the US-led coalition that has fought IS in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

The US president made clear his patience was running out as he met top national security aides on Tuesday. Yet the meeting concluded with no hard-and-fast deadline handed down, leaving Trump’s team struggling to deduce how fast is fast enough for Trump, according to officials briefed on the meeting who weren’t authorized to discuss it and requested anonymity.

In this Saturday, March 31, 2018 file photo, Syrian boys, right, sit on a pickup truck as they travel next to a US vehicle, on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

The disagreement between Trump and his team has played out in chaotic and increasingly public fashion. On Tuesday, before the Syria meeting, Trump was telling television cameras he wanted to “get out,” just as the US special envoy for fighting IS insisted “our mission isn’t over.” And on Wednesday, the White House issued a statement that declared the IS mission is “coming to a rapid end” but avoided specifics altogether.

“We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Urging him to slow down, Trump’s aides have been emphasizing that IS fighters remain active in Syria, evidence that Trump’s own, publicly stated objective – the total defeat of IS – has yet to be met. Officials said the US is tracking two pockets where IS remains viable – one in the Middle Euphrates River Valley region, another along the Iraq-Syria border. And despite the White House’s insistence that the group is “almost completely defeated,” a string of renewed IS attacks in recent weeks has raised fears about a resurgence.

Regardless of exactly when the troops leave, the decision to remove them as soon as possible has forced an immediate realignment of long-term US objectives in the country, officials said.

With no military presence to ensure security for American personnel, the US will have to call off other planned operations to clear land mines, restore basic services like water and electricity, and create political conditions needed to resolve Syria’s civil war. Already, Trump has put an indefinite hold on $200 million he pledged previously for those operations.

A fighter of a Christian Syriac militia that battles the Islamic State group under the banner of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, burns an IS flag on the front line on the western side of Raqqa, northeast Syria, Monday, July 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Those efforts by US diplomats and aid workers have been seen as critical to ensuring that Syria’s territory isn’t exploited in the future by IS remnants, other terror factions or Iran. They formed a key component of Trumps new Syria strategy, laid out by then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a speech in January declaring it “vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria.” But the speech, while formally approved by the White House, angered Trump, officials said, and the US president fired Tillerson last month.

Instead, Trump will leave stabilizing Syria to other nations, in line with his long-stated view that the United States shoulders too much of global costs and should put “America first.”

“I want to get out,” Trump said. “I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.”

Trump has asked Saudi Arabia, which is keenly interested in keeping Iran out of Syria, to contribute $4 billion toward reconstruction and stabilization efforts that the US no longer plans to undertake. He came away from a phone call Monday with King Salman confident that the king will agree to give the money, two US officials briefed on the conversation told AP. The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately comment.

Securing foreign dollars while pulling out troops could allow Trump to argue before the November midterms that he’s shifted the burden of resolving far-flung crises away from America. But ceding influence over Syrian territory could hand more control to countries whose interests in the Middle East are sharply at odds with the United States.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani (L) pose for a photo ahead of the Turkey-Russia-Iran Tripartite summit in Ankara, Turkey on April 04, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / TOLGA BOZOGLU)

As the White House was talking up a US withdrawal on Wednesday, the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran were meeting in Ankara to hash out their own plans for Syria’s future, including a continued Turkish operation to oust US-backed Kurdish fighters from northern Syria. The three nations have been pushing their own diplomatic track for resolving Syria’s civil war, even as the US tries to rejuvenate United Nations-led talks.

“We have agreed to expand the entire range of our trilateral cooperation in Syria,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in the Turkish capital, claiming credit on the trio’s behalf for the Islamic State group’s near-defeat.

Russia has been propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad for years, with increasing help from Iranian-backed Shiite terror groups such as Hezbollah — to the dismay of US allies such as Israel.

But it is not clear that the US has capable local partners lined up to handle basic security and prevent a total collapse following a precipitous US pullout — a prospect that offers unsettling echoes of the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq. As a candidate, Trump derided President Barack Obama for that decision and argued that the resulting power vacuum enabled the formation of the Islamic State.

The Syrian Kurds, the most effective fighting force in Syria aligned with Washington, recently shifted to fighting Turkish forces in the area of Afrin. That forced a pause in operations against the main IS holdout in Syria. The Pentagon has warned that the distraction could give IS the reprieve it needs to regroup after four years of being pummeled.

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