There is no date for a US troop withdrawal from Syria, a US official said in advance of US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s arrival in Israel Saturday night to assuage Israeli fears that the absence of American soldiers emboldens Iran to act against the Jewish state.
“Concerning Syria, we have no timeline for our military forces to withdraw from Syria,” a senior State Department official told reporters in Washington.
US President Donald Trump “made the decision that we will withdraw our military forces from Syria, but that it will be done in a deliberate, heavily coordinated way with our allies and partners,” the official said.
“It will be done in such a way that we maintain – we and our allies and partners – maintain pressure on ISIS throughout, and that we do not open up any vacuums for terrorists to exploit.”
Trump’s sudden announcement of the withdrawal last month contributed to Jim Mattis’s decision to resign as US defense secretary and prompted concern that Islamic State could stage a comeback.
At the time, it appeared that the US troops would leave fairly soon, but no action has been taken on the matter so far. Washington is now taking steps to assure its allies that it will remain engaged in the region.
Bolton will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday before traveling to Turkey to speak with President Tayyip Erdogan.
On January 8, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will embark on a regional tour of eight countries including: Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait.
Before landing in Ben-Gurion International Airport, Bolton warned the Syrian government that it should not see the US military withdrawal from the country as an invitation to use chemical weapons.
“There is absolutely no change in the US position against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and absolutely no change in our position that any use of chemical weapons would be met by a very strong response, as we’ve done twice before,” Bolton said in a conversation with reporters on his flight.
“So the regime, the Assad regime, should be under no illusions on that question,” Bolton added.
“As we elaborate how the [US troop] withdrawal is going to occur and the circumstances, we don’t want the Assad regime to see what we do as representing any diminution in our opposition to the use of weapons of mass destruction,” he said.
If chemical weapons were to be used, “a lot of options would be on the table... if they don’t heed the lessons of those two strikes, the next one will be more telling,” Bolton said.
After he landed, he tweeted, “Looking forward to meeting with Israeli senior officials tomorrow to discuss a range of shared priorities between the United States and Israel, including the enduring US commitment to Israel’s security.”
In speaking of the trip on Twitter before leaving, he said that he would discuss with Israel and Turkey, “how we will work with allies & partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, & counter Iranian malign behavior in the region.”
In light of the plans for a US troop withdrawal, Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday.
The Prime Minister’s Office said that the two men “discussed the situation in Syria and recent developments, and agreed on continued coordination between the [Israeli and Russian] armies.”
Netanyahu told Putin that, “Israel is determined to continue its efforts to prevent Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria.”
“Netanyahu congratulated President Putin and the Russian people on the occasion of the civil New Year and expressed his condolences over the disaster in Magnitogorsk,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Pompeo on Thursday told Fox’s Sean Hannity that the US is combating Iran with a coalition of Arab states and Israel.
“We know that [Iran] is a real threat to the world and to America, and so we have developed relationships with Arab countries and Israel. We’ve brought them together to develop a coalition to keep Americans safe from things going on in the Middle East,” Pompeo said.
“Countries like the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians and Israel are now working together across multiple fronts,” he said.
The US, he said, will still be able to counter the threat from ISIS in Syria, even when its troops have gone home.
On Thursday, Pompeo warned Iran of new sanctions if it launched three Space Launch Vehicles (SLVs), which have technology akin to that used in ballistic missiles.
In July 2017, Iran launched a Simorgh (Phoenix) rocket it said could deliver a satellite into space, an act the US State Department called provocative. Iranian Deputy Defense Minister General Qassem Taqizadeh in late November was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Iran would soon launch into space three satellites made by domestic experts.
The launch of those satellites, Pompeo said, “would once again demonstrate Iran’s defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon the Iranian regime not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
“This action includes launching SLVs, which incorporate technology that is virtually identical to that used in ballistic missiles, including in intercontinental ballistic-missiles (ICBMs). An ICBM with a range of 10,000 km. could reach the United States,” Pompeo said.
Iran has launched numerous ballistic missiles since Resolution 2231 was approved in 2015, he said.
“On December 1, the Iranian regime test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads, and the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force later said that Iran tests 40 to 50 ballistic missiles every year,” he explained.
Such Iranian ballistic missile tests and SLV launches have destabilized the region, Pompeo said. He added that France, Germany and the United Kingdom were also concerned.
“The Iranian regime is the world’s foremost state sponsor of terror and has proliferated missiles and related technology to its proxies around the Middle East, further flouting UNSCR 2231. The United States will not stand by and watch the Iranian regime’s destructive policies place international stability and security at risk,” he said.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Khonsari retorted on Twitter that it was the United States, not Iran, which had violated UN Security Council resolution 2231.
“Iran’s launch of space vehicles – & missile tests – are NOT in violation of Res 2231. The US is in material breach of same, & as such it is in no position to lecture anyone on it. Reminder to the US: 1. Res 1929 is dead; 2. threats engender threats, while civility begets civility,” he wrote.
On Thursday, Netanyahu addressed the changing Trump administration policy about troop deployment in the Middle East, noting that the US will continue to support the battle against regional threats economically, while Israel will continue to use its military might.
“President Trump is acting against Iran in the economic sphere and here in Israel, we are acting against Iran in the military sphere,” Netanyahu said.
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