The withdrawal of US troops from Syria won’t impede Israel’s ability to defend itself against regional threats, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday night.
He spoke after the United States announced it has begun pulling out its military personnel from Syria. US officials added that Washington was considering removing all of its troops, as it winds up its campaign to retake territory once held by Islamic State.
Netanyahu said the US decision did not come as a surprise, and that he spoke about the matter with US President Donald Trump on Monday, and with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.
“The American administration told me that the intention of the president is to take their troops out of Syria,” he said. “They made clear that they have other ways to make their influence felt in the area.”
This was obviously “an American decision,” Netanyahu said, adding that Israel would study the timetable, see how the withdrawal will be carried out, and gauge “its ramifications on us.”
In any event, he added, “we will protect Israel’s security and defend ourselves from that front.”
One US official said Washington aims to withdraw troops within 60 to 100 days, and said the US State Department was evacuating all its personnel in Syria within 24 hours.
A second US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the US military was planning for a full withdrawal, but said the timing could be quicker than 60-100 days.
A decision to pull out completely would upend assumptions about a longer-term US military presence in Syria, which senior US officials have advocated to help ensure Islamic State cannot reemerge.
“We have started returning United States troops home, as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement issued after Trump tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there.”
It was not immediately clear from Sanders’s statement whether all of the roughly 2,000 US troops in the country would leave, and if so, by when.
Sanders suggested that the United States would remain engaged to some degree.
“The United States and our allies stand ready to reengage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support,” she said.
A decision to pull out completely, if confirmed, would raise doubts about how to prevent a resurgence of the terrorist group, undercut US leverage in the region and undermine diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian civil war, now in its eighth year.
Some of Trump’s fellow Republicans opposed the move, stating that it would strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran, which both support Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In Israel, critics of the move similarly said that the move weakened the Trump administration’s ability to stand strong against Iran and removed one of the deterrents to an Iranian buildup in Syria.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former director-general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence, said the move strengthens Iran in Syria.
If the US forces leave areas in southern Syria, “it 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,” Kupperwasser said.
The Iranians will “be empowered and feel much stronger” by this move, and “it’s not totally clear that Islamic State cannot reemerge, taking advantage of the weakening of their adversaries in this area, and rise again.”
Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren (Kulanu) said Israel’s interest was always best served by “strong American leverage in the Middle East.”
He added that this was “an internal issue,” and he didn’t want to comment any further.
Former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said that minimizing the US military footprint in the region “weakens the pressure campaign against Iran in a critical arena” and “leaves allies like Israel and the Kurds feeling left alone to manage the fallout.”
“It removes an important obstacle to Iran having an uninterrupted flow of weapons and personnel into Syria,” Shapiro said.
It also could weaken Arab support for the Trump peace plan, he said.
“If you are seeking the buy-in of Arab states like Saudi Arabia to a plan that would be controversial for them in terms of their domestic politics,” then they have to believe that the US would play a strong role in countering Iran.
Shapiro speculated that Trump may have taken the move to strengthen his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, turning to Syria after he was stymied in Europe.
Syria may be a venue where he sees an “opportunity to achieve a kind of meeting of the minds with Putin at what for him is relatively low cost, but it is a real win for Putin and a real negative development for other US allies in the region, Shapiro said.
Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was slow to get involved in Syria’s civil war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced around half the country’s prewar 22 million population, fearing being dragged into another foreign war even as he sought to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. But in a campaign to defeat Islamic State in Syria, Obama ordered air strikes from September 2014 and then troops into the country the following year.
Republican US Sen. Lindsey Graham, often a Trump ally but generally a foreign policy hawk, said a withdrawal would have “devastating consequences” for the United States in the region and throughout the world.
“An American withdrawal at this time would be a big win for ISIS, Iran, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Russia,” Graham said in a statement.
A British defense minister said he strongly disagreed with Trump that Islamic State had been defeated in Syria.
In Russia, TASS news agency quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying withdrawing US troops from Syria created prospects for a political settlement of the crisis there.
Many of the remaining US troops in Syria are special operations forces working closely with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
The partnership with the SDF over the past several years has led to the defeat of Islamic State in Syria, but has also outraged NATO ally Turkey, which views Kurdish YPG forces in the alliance as an extension of a separatist terrorist group fighting inside Turkey.
The deliberations on US troops come as Ankara threatens a new offensive in Syria. To date, US forces in Syria have been seen as a stabilizing factor in the country and have somewhat restrained Turkey’s actions against the SDF.
A complete withdrawal of US troops from Syria would leave a sizable US military presence in the region, including about 5,200 troops across the border in Iraq. Much of the US campaign in Syria has been waged by warplanes flying out of Qatar and other locations in the Middle East.
Still, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and State Department officials have long fretted about leaving Syria before a peace agreement can be reached to end the brutal civil war.
Islamic State is also widely expected to revert to guerrilla tactics, once it no longer holds territory. A US withdrawal could open Trump up to criticism, if Islamic State reemerges.
Trump has previously lambasted Obama for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq that preceded an unraveling of the Iraqi Armed Forces. Iraqi forces collapsed in the face of Islamic State’s advance into the country in 2014.
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