U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque.
(photo credit: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE)
WASHINGTON – Surprising his advisers, President Donald Trump told rally-goers in Ohio this week that he will soon pull US forces out of Syria, where they are holding ground sought by Iranian forces at Israel’s encouragement.
Trump’s impromptu declaration was unscripted, and White House aides scrambled to figure out whether his declaration amounted to a dramatic change in policy. The Wall Street Journal later reported that he plans to freeze $200 million in basic State Department funds for Syria’s recovery.
“We’ll be coming out of Syria very soon,” Trump told Ohio trade unionists. “Let the other people take care of it now.”
The president cited military victories against Islamic State, the terrorist group that for four years held territory throughout Iraq and Syria. “We’re going to have 100% of the caliphate, as they call it – sometimes referred to as land,” he said. “We’re taking it all back.”
But the policy move amounts to a significant double take for Israel, which is relying on Trump’s vow to prevent Iran’s spread across Syrian territory.
Damascus warns Israel of "more surprises" in Syria, February 13, 2018 (Reuters)
The Iranian government has invested over $18 billion in the survival of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to US estimates, and has in return begun constructing a permanent military presence there, contiguous with its proxy forces in Lebanon along Israel’s northern border.
Israeli officials fear the emboldened front risks a major regional war – fears that were born out in February, when Israel shot down an Iranian drone in its airspace, retaliating with air strikes against Iranian assets in Syria and losing a jet in the process.
H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national security adviser, advocated for a strong US military presence in Syria to push back against Iran’s efforts. Earlier this month, the former general warned that Iran was building a “permanent military foothold” in the war-torn country that would “threaten Israel” and challenge US interests throughout the greater Middle East.
“We cannot let this happen,” he charged.
It was his final speech as national security adviser before he was fired on March 22.
This has been a consistent policy focus for the administration across agencies. Rolling out the administration’s Iran policy, after a policy review led by McMaster, the White House highlighted Iran’s presence in Syria as a primary concern.
“Both governments – the United States and Israel – are rightly concerned about Iran’s malign influence in the region,” a White House official told The Jerusalem Post this summer. “A core goal of US policy in Syria is to ensure that no vacuum is created which Iran can fill.”
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