TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to have tried in vain to persuade President Donald Trump to walk back his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, a move that was met with significant “disappointment” in Jerusalem, Israeli media reported.
Israeli political figures have said that the move represents a possible blow to regional security, leaving the Jewish state to single-handedly combat the threat posed by the Iranian presence in the embattled country.
In Netanyahu’s public remarks, he said that he had spoken with both Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who “made it clear that they had other ways to express their influence in the arena.”
“This is, of course, America’s decision,” he added. “We will study the timetable, the mode of operation, and of course the implications for us. In any case, we will take care to protect Israel’s security and to protect ourselves from that arena.”
However, a Channel 10 report broadcast on Wednesday said that Netanyahu had made several failed attempts to convince Trump to change his mind and that senior Israeli officials view the withdrawal as “a slap in the face” for Israel. The U.S. presence in Syria was “the only bargaining chip” in Israel’s attempts to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to assist in preventing Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria, the report said.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump announced the decision, saying now that the Islamic State had been “defeated” in Syria, there was no reason to keep 2,000 troops on the ground.
However, Israeli military experts have said that the presence of U.S. forces wasn’t just limited to fighting the Islamic State. According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former director of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry and ex-head of the Research Division of Military Intelligence, the U.S. pullout “would mean that the Assad forces and the Iranians will have full control over Syria, and this would mean that they may try to deliver weapons from Iran through Iraq to Syria and then to Lebanon. And there’s not going to be anything in between to stop them.”
Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman took matters a step further, and warned that the move could spark a war between Israel and Iranian-backed militias.
“The withdrawal of the US from Syria significantly raises the chance of an all-out conflict in the north — both [in] Lebanon and Syria,” Liberman told Israel Radio on Thursday.
“This is 2,000 soldiers who supervised the passage between Iraq and Syria. We’re now talking about contiguous Shiite land between Iran, Iraq and Syria,” he said.
Liberman’s predecessor Moshe Ya’alon acknowledged the “more complex” reality created by the move, but said that the U.S. could express its support of Israeli efforts in Syria through other means, primarily by backing a formal recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the strategic Golan Heights.
“Not as ‘compensation’ but rather as an expression of continued support,” he said.
“Israel can’t allow Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. We’ll act at almost any price to prevent this,” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon told Army Radio on Thursday.
Opposition figures, meanwhile, said the move represented a stain on Netanyahu’s foreign policy record.
“The USA is withdrawing its forces from Syria with the claim that IS was the only reason for them being in the country, the disregard for Iranian entrenchment in Syria is dangerous to Israel,” opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union tweeted. “A political-security failure recorded under Netanyahu’s name.”
Yesh Atid party head MK Yair Lapid said the move was a foreign policy debacle that “clears the way for Iran’s expansion and narrows Israel’s ability to bargain with the Russians.”
Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli called it “one of Netanyahu’s most serious” blunders and “a failure in preventing a withdrawal of US forces from Syria and the abandonment of Israel to the mercy of Russia and Iran on the northern front.”
“Worst of all, he does not even have room to maneuver in a campaign against Trump,” she added. “A resounding political and security failure, very bad for Israel’s security.”
Brig. Gen. (res.) Eli Ben Meir, a former head of the IDF’s Research Analysis Division and former intelligence military attaché to Washington, gave a more tempered response, saying that he didn’t believe the withdrawal represented abandonment of Israeli interests and may even have the opposite effect of “helping Israel” by focusing U.S. efforts on other shared interests in the region, including the strengthening of ties with Sunni states and curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In a call to reporters Thursday, Ben Meir said the move was a “legitimate decision” on the part of the White House but cautioned that Trump’s statement of an Islamic State “defeat” was misleading. There are still 15,000 operatives in Syria and elsewhere and the group still has influence in Europe to carry out more terror attacks.
Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said that while Israel will respect the decision, Israel would do whatever it needs to protect itself in Syria.
“It is a US decision, we respect the decision made by the administration,” Danon told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York. “We have our concerns about Syria, about the threat of Iranian troops in Syria, and we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people, regardless if you have American troops, Russian troops, or any other nation.”
In a rare criticism of the president, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham echoed Ben Meir’s comments, saying that the Islamic State was far from defeated.
“With all due respect, ISIS is not defeated in Syria, Iraq, and after just returning from visiting there — certainly not Afghanistan,” Graham said on Twitter.
“President @realDonaldTrump is right to want to contain Iranian expansion,” he said in a later tweet. “However, withdrawal of our forces in Syria mightily undercuts that effort and put our allies the Kurds at risk.”
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, described the decision as “extraordinarily short-sighted and naive.”
“This move will look like a ‘withdrawal,’ not a ‘victory,’ and yet more evidence of the dangerous unpredictability of the U.S. president,” Lister said. “This is not just a dream scenario for ISIS, but also for Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, all of whom stand to benefit substantially from a U.S. withdrawal.”