‘We told the Israelis clearly, we’re staying in Syria,’ US official says

Administration source tells Channel 10 Israel’s most pressing concern in recent White House talks on Iran was Tehran’s entrenchment in the Arab country

A US soldier stands near Syrian children on a road that links to Raqqa, Syria, Wednesday, July 26, 2017 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
A US soldier stands near Syrian children on a road that links to Raqqa, Syria, Wednesday, July 26, 2017 (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Israel’s most pressing concern during a recent meeting in Washington on future cooperation on the Iranian threat was the Islamic republic’s entrenchment in Syria and US plans to counter Tehran’s ambitions, Channel 10 news reported Friday.

A senior administration official told Channel 10 that Israeli national security advisers Meir Ben-Shabbat wanted to know during the December 12 meeting in the White House whether the US was preparing to withdraw its forces from Syria. The Israelis, he said, were concerned as to whether the US was planning to remain involved militarily in Syria, as well as in diplomacy to end the civil war there.

“We answered the Israelis clearly,” the unnamed US official told Channel 10. “We are staying in Syria, both with our troops and with regards to our involvement in any future diplomatic deal in the country.”

Channel 10 further reported that this approach was later ratified by US President Donald Trump in internal White House discussions.

Channel 10 on Thursday first reported that Israel and the US had secretly signed a far-reaching joint memorandum of understanding providing for full cooperation to deal with Iran’s nuclear drive, its missile programs and its other threatening activities.

US National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster speaks during a press briefing at the White House on May 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Saul Loeb)

The document was signed on December 12 at the White House, culminating intensive talks between representatives of the major Israeli and American intelligence and defense hierarchies, headed by the US and Israeli national security advisers, H. R. McMaster and Ben-Shabbat, respectively, the Channel 10 report said.

Citing both American and Israeli officials, the report said the document is designed to translate into “steps on the ground” the positions set out by Trump in his October 13 speech on Iran, in which he decertified the Iran nuclear deal.

At what the TV report described as a “secret” meeting at the White House, the US and Israel formulated and signed a joint agreement on strategy and policy regarding Iran. Specifically, they agreed to set up joint teams to handle various aspects of the Iranian threat.

One such joint team, the report said, will deal with Iranian activity in Syria and Tehran’s support for the Hezbollah terror organization. Another joint team will deal with both diplomatic and intelligence activities designed to grapple with Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. A third joint team, it was reportedly agreed, would grapple with Iran’s ballistic missile program and its efforts to build accurate missile systems in Syria and Lebanon. Finally, a fourth team would oversee preparation for any escalation by Iran and/or Hezbollah.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)

McMaster and Ben-Shabbat signed the joint document, the TV report said, quoting a “senior US government” source and “senior Israeli officials.”

Quoting the Israeli officials, Channel 10 said that the meeting confirmed that the US and Israel “see eye to eye on the trends and processes in the region,” and have now reached agreement on the strategy and policy required to deal with them.

Israel has expressed ongoing concern over the ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia in southern Syria, saying it does not sufficiently address Iranian military ambitions in the area.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that the agreement perpetuates Iranian plans to set up a disruptive long-term presence on Israel’s northern border, something he has repeatedly vowed that the Jewish state won’t tolerate.

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