Israel “categorically rejects” and will not accept Iran’s efforts to remain permanently in Syria, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Wednesday after the leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in Ankara to talk about Syria’s future.
Liberman, in an Army Radio interview, said that President Hassan Rouhani lashed out after that meeting at the US and Israel, and made clear that Iran intends to stay in the country “forever.”
“They are building settlements in Syria, intend on settling there, and are talking about the infrastructure they want to build,” the defense minister said. “This is categorically unacceptable to us, and we will not accept it.”
Liberman bewailed that Iran, Russia and Turkey were essentially deciding the future of Syria, without a single representative from the US, EU, or the UN around the table.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, spoke with President Donald Trump on Tuesday evening, soon after Trump made clear his intent to withdraw US troops from Syria, though without setting a firm deadline.
The White House issued a statement saying Trump reiterated the US commitment to Israel’s security, and the two leaders agreed to continue “their close coordination on countering Iran’s malign influence and destabilizing activities.”
Netanyahu’s office said that in the call, the prime minister also thanked Trump for America’s support at the UN.
Jerusalem is concerned that a US withdrawal will open the door for Iran to make further inroads in Syria.
Around 2,000 US troops are deployed in northern Syria on a mission to battle the remnants of an Islamic State force that once controlled the area.
Liberman said that the territory under US influence in northern Syria amounts to about onefourth of the country.
Trump agreed in a National Security Council meeting on Tuesday to keep American troops in Syria a little longer, but he wants them out relatively soon, a senior administration official said on Wednesday.
Trump did not approve a specific withdrawal timetable, the official said. He wants to ensure Islamic State terrorists are defeated, but also that other countries in the region and the United Nations step up and help provide stability in Syria, the official said.
“We’re not going to immediately withdraw but neither is the president willing to back a long-term commitment,” the official said.
The White House issued a statement saying that the military mission “to eradicate ISIS in Syria” is coming to a rapid end, with the terrorist organization “almost completely destroyed.”
“The United States and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small ISIS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated,” the statement read. “We will continue to consult with our allies and friends regarding future plans. We expect countries in the region and beyond, plus the United Nations, to work toward peace and ensure that ISIS never reemerges.”
A day earlier, however, Trump doubled down on his off-thecuff comment last week vowing to bring US troops home from Syria, a statement that rattled the Pentagon, concerned Israeli leadership and alarmed embattled Arab allies.
At a press conference at the White House with the leaders of the three Baltic states on Tuesday, Trump said, “I want to get out – I want to bring our troops back home. I want to rebuild our nation.”
Liberman said that regardless of Washington’s decision, Israel must continue to preserve the redlines it has established in Syria.
Meanwhile, Turkey, Iran and Russia pledged on Wednesday to accelerate efforts to bring stability to Syria, underlining their joint commitment to the country a day after Trump raised the prospect of withdrawing US troops.
A statement by the three countries after a summit meeting in Ankara said they were determined to “speed up their efforts to ensure calm on the ground” in Syria.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said developments in Syria, where the Syrian Army and its allies have driven back rebels in recent years, showed that the United States had “failed to topple the Syrian government” of President Bashar Assad.
The US and Israel “wanted to fuel insecurity in order to maintain their own interests, but they have gained no success,” Rouhani told a news conference after talks with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. He added, however, that he believed US forces would stay in Syria.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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