Posts Tagged ‘Bashar al-Assad’

Iran says it will keep military forces in Syria despite Israeli threats

January 16, 2019

Iran will keep military forces in Syria, the head of the elite Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday, defying Israeli threats that they might be targeted if they do not leave the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israeli forces would continue to attack Iranians in Syria unless they quickly get out of there.

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Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will keep its military advisers, revolutionary forces and its weapons in Syria,” Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Revolutionary Guards top commander, was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency. Jafari called Netanyahu’s threats “a joke”, and warned that the Israeli government “was playing with (a) lion’s tail.”

“You should be afraid of the day that our precision-guided missiles roar and fall on your head,” he said.

Iran and Russia have both backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a seven-year war against rebels and militants, and have sent thousands of soldiers to the country.

Israel, increasingly concerned that its enemy Iran may establish a long-term military presence in neighboring Syria, says it has carried out more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria in the last two years.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli warplanes carried out an attack on what he called an Iranian arms cache in Syria.

Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Mark Heinrich



Erdogan ‘saddened’ by Trump threat to ‘devastate’ Turkish economy

January 15, 2019

Turkish president discussed possible safe zone for Kurds in phone call with president Trump

By Laura Pitel in Istanbul

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he discussed the idea of setting up a 20-mile safe zone in northern Syria during a “positive” phone call with Donald Trump on Tuesday. Mr Erdogan said that he had been “saddened” by Mr Trump’s threats, issued on Twitter on Sunday night, to “devastate Turkey economically” if it followed through on a threat to attack Kurdish forces in north east Syria.

But he said that the two leaders had reached an understanding “of historic importance” during a telephone conversation on Monday. “It was a positive phone call,” Mr Erdogan said, according to a report of his comments by BBC Turkish. “He once again confirmed his decision to withdraw from Syria.”

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, above, described his phone call regarding safe zones in Syria with US president, Donald Trump, as positive. (AFP)

The Turkish leader said that Mr Trump had raised the prospect of “a safe zone, to be created by us, along the border with Turkey” on the Syrian side. “We agreed that our teams’ discussions on all the subjects on the agenda will continue,” he said. In a tweet after their call, Mr Trump said that he had advised the Turkish president on “where we stand on all matters including our last two weeks of success in fighting the remnants of ISIS, and 20 mile safe zone.”

He added: “Also spoke about economic development between the US & Turkey — great potential to substantially expand!” Turkey has for years supported the idea of a safe zone in northern Syria. Mr Trump appears to have seized upon the idea as a way of containing the backlash after his abrupt announcement last month that US troops would withdraw. Kurdish forces played a central role in the US-led campaign against Isis jihadis.

The forces have warned that the American pullout is a betrayal that leaves them vulnerable to an attack by Turkey, which views Kurdish militias as domestic terrorists who represent a security threat. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, told reporters in Riyadh this week that discussions on the creation of a buffer zone were ongoing.

“We want to make sure that the folks who fought with us to down [Isis] have security . . . and also that terrorists acting out of Syria aren’t able to attack Turkey,” he said.

“We want a secure border for all the parties.” Some military analysts believe that a negotiated agreement to create such a zone could be a realistic compromise, allowing Turkey to protect its border without triggering a full onslaught by the Turkish military that would risk angering the US.

Many questions remain, however, about who would monitor the area, what would happen if Kurdish armed groups refused to give up territory, and whether the plan would be accepted by the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who is his most important backer.


Syria says Israel fired missiles toward Damascus, hit airport warehouse

January 12, 2019

The Syrian state news agency said Israeli warplanes fired a number of missiles toward the Damascus area on Friday, triggering Syrian air defense that shot down most of them.

“The results of the aggression so far were limited to a strike on one of the warehouses at Damascus airport,” the SANA news agency cited a military source as saying. The attack took place at 11:15 p.m.(2115 GMT), it said.

A missile attack reported at Mazzeh air base in Syria, September 2, 2018. (screen capture: Twitter)

A missile attack reported at Mazzeh air base in Syria, September 2, 2018. (screen capture: Twitter)

Syrian state media broadcast footage of what it said were the air defenses firing, with bright lights seen shooting across the night sky. Explosions were heard in one of the videos.

Israel has mounted attacks in Syria as part of its effort to counter the influence carved out there by Iran, which has supported President Bashar al-Assad in the war that erupted in 2011.

The last Israeli attack reported by Syrian state media was on Dec. 25, when a missile attack wounded three Syrian soldiers.

Syrian state media broadcast footage of what it said were its air defences lighting up the night sky [Handout/SANA/AFP]

Syrian state media broadcast footage of what it said were its air defences lighting up the night sky [Handout/SANA/AFP]

A senior Israeli official said in September Israel had carried out more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria in the last two years.

Iranian and Iran-backed groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah have deployed into Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s government during the war.

Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Sandra Maler and James Dalgleish



Syria says Israeli airstrikes hit warehouse at Damascus airport

Official news agency claims most missiles fired by warplanes intercepted, amid local reports of loud explosions; monitoring group says attack targeted Hezbollah, Iran

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Screen  grab from video provided on Wednesday, May, 9, 2018 by Syria

Syrian air defense batteries opened fire on “hostile Israel missiles” near Damascus Friday night, the official news agency SANA reported.

A military source told the news agency that “at 11:15 p.m. Israeli warplanes coming from the direction of the Galilee fired several missiles towards the vicinity of Damascus.”

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The source claimed that air defenses intercepted “most” of the missiles and said a “ministry of transport warehouse at Damascus international airport” was hit. Another official told SANA traffic at the airport had not been disrupted.

An AFP correspondent in Damascus heard several loud explosions.

“Two areas hosting military positions of Iranian forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement have been targeted,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

These were near the airport and around the Kisweh area south of Damascus, the observatory said.

In an earlier report, SANA had spoken of Syrian air-defence batteries attacking “enemy targets.”

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Syrian air defenses responding to expected Israeli air raids

Israeli officials made no statement on Friday’s reports, but seldom comment on alleged strikes.

Israel in recent years has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran, which alongside its proxies and Russia is fighting on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The last such reported airstrike occurred on Christmas Day. On that occasion an erroneous Syrian anti-aircraft missile flew into Israeli airspace, and was destroyed by Israeli air defenses.

Israel has accused Iran of seeking to establish a military presence in Syria that could threaten Israeli security and attempting to transfer advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

The number of airstrikes in Syria attributed to Israel has dropped in recent months, after a Russian military plane was downed by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli attack on Latakia, killing all 15 servicemen aboard.

Russia blamed the Israeli military for that incident — a charge rejected by Jerusalem — and has supplied Syria with the advanced S-300 air defense system.

The S-300 systems were delivered to Syria late last year, but they are not yet believed to be in use, as the Syrian air defense teams still need to be trained to operate them.


Pompeo vows US will fight Isis in Middle East despite Syria move

January 10, 2019

Secretary of state says Trump’s decisiion is not a ‘change of mission’

Heba Saleh in Cairo

Pompeo meets the Egyptian president ahead of his wide ranging speech on US Middle East policy in Cairo. (AFP)

Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has reaffirmed the country’s commitment to fighting Isis in the Middle East, despite the administration’s December decision to pull out forces from Syria.

Speaking from Cairo, Mr Pompeo said the decision to withdraw was not a “change of mission” and that the US would continue to conduct air strikes against the group “as targets arise” and to “hunt down terrorists in Libya and Yemen.”

On broader US strategy in the Middle East, Mr Pompeo reserved his tougher words for Iran saying: “We must confront the Ayatollahs, not coddle them.”

Without naming the former US president, Mr Pompeo rebuked Barack Obama for his stance on Iran, “our common enemy,” and implementing policies which he says weakened the role of the US in the region.

Mr Pompeo is on a tour of the Middle East, making stops in Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. He plans to continue to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar.



Pompeo: US seeks to ‘expel every last Iranian boot’ in Syria

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed Thursday the United States and its allies would chase all Iranian troops from Syria, and urged Middle East nations to forge a common stand against Tehran.

“It’s time for old rivalries to end, for the sake of the greater good of the region,” said Pompeo at a keynote address in Cairo.

America “will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria and bolster efforts “to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people,” he added.

The top US diplomat was in Egypt on the latest leg of a whistle-stop regional tour aimed at shoring up Washington’s Middle East policy following President Donald Trump’s shock decision to withdraw 2,000 US troops from Syria.

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Secretary Pompeo


I had a productive meeting with @AlsisiOfficial in Cairo today. The U.S. stands firmly with in its commitments to protecting and in the fight against terrorism that threatens all of our friends in the Middle East.

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Pompeo stressed the pullout would go ahead, despite comments in recent weeks appearing to walk back Trump’s decision, but that the US would remain engaged.

The “decision to withdraw our troops has been made. We will do that. We will withdraw our forces, our uniformed forces, from Syria and continue America’s crushing campaign,” Pompeo told reporters at a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry.

He also met earlier with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, after arriving in Cairo late Wednesday on his longest trip since taking office last year which has already taken him to Jordan, Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital Arbil.

In his address entitled “A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East” at the American University in Cairo, Pompeo also took aim at former president Barack Obama without naming him.

Trump’s predecessor had “grossly underestimated the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism,” Pompeo said.

And parroting Obama’s words in his landmark 2009 speech in Cairo, Pompeo vowed that now was really “a new beginning” in ties between the US and the Middle East.

Pompeo’s tour is aimed at urging regional allies to continue to confront the “significant threats” posed by Iran and extremists.

Even though Daesh have been largely eradicated from Iraq, after capturing a vast swathe of territory in 2014, some still control a few pockets in war-torn Syria.

Pompeo will also visit Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman.

As he arrived in Egypt, the State Department described the country as a “steadfast partner in the anti-terror fight, and a courageous voice in denouncing the radical Islamist ideology that fuels it.”

But there are rising concerns that US policy is getting bogged down. A long-promised Trump plan for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians has so far failed to materialise.

And many of the Trump administration’s decisions have stoked confusion and angered many regional allies.

Turkey and the United States are now at loggerheads over the future of Syrian Kurdish forces, considered by Ankara as “terrorists,” after the troop pullout.

Turkish officials had a tense meeting this week with Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton in Ankara aimed at coordinating the pullout process after Bolton set conditions that appeared to postpone it indefinitely.

The terms included total defeat of Daesh – still active in some Syrian regions – and ensuring that Kurdish fighters who fought alongside the Americans against the jihadists will be protected.

On Thursday, Turkey renewed its threat to launch an offensive against Kurds.

“If the (pullout) is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told NTV television.


US to expel every last Iranian boot from Syria – Pompeo

January 10, 2019

The US will work with allies to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says.

Mr Pompeo warned there would be no US reconstruction aid for areas controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until Iran and its proxies had left.

He also criticised ex-President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, saying he had made “dire misjudgements”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo, Egypt (10 January 2019)

Mr Pompeo was speaking in Cairo three weeks after President Donald Trump said US troops were pulling out of Syria.

The announcement had shocked US allies and sparked strong criticism in Washington.

Mr Pompeo, who has been seeking to reassure allies following Mr Trump’s surprise announcement, said: “America will not retreat until the terror fight is over. We will labour tirelessly alongside you to defeat Isis [the Islamic State group], al-Qaeda and other jihadists that threaten our security and yours.”

He said that the US was a “force for good” in the Middle East, adding: “Where America retreats, chaos follows.”

Why did Pompeo mention Iran?

Iran, alongside Russia, has been supporting the Syrian government in the Syrian civil war, providing arms, military advisers, and reportedly combat troops.

The US is deeply suspicious of Iranian activity in the Middle East and views it as a destabilising force in the region.

It is also an ally of Israel and Saudi Arabia, two of Iran’s foes.

On Thursday, Mr Pompeo said “we will not ease our campaign to stop Iran’s malevolent influence and actions against this region and the world.”

He added that American sanctions against Iran were “the strongest in history and will keep getting tougher”.

Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif mocked Mr Pompeo’s speech, saying that wherever the US interferes, “chaos, repression and resentment follow”.

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What is the US’s approach to Syria?

The US, along with Turkey, Gulf Arab states, and Jordan, has been supporting some rebel groups.

Some 2,000 US military personnel are reported to be in Syria, and have been involved in fighting Islamic State militants.

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U.S. Troops in Syria

In December, Mr Trump said he was withdrawing all remaining troops because IS had been “defeated”, adding “they’re all coming back and they’re coming back now”.

The announcement shocked allies and several US defence officials, including Defence Secretary James Mattis, resigned shortly afterwards.

Since then, US officials have appeared to row back slightly on the decision. Mr Trump said the troops would be pulled out “slowly”, while National Security Adviser John Bolton said the withdrawal would depend on certain conditions.

National Security Adviser John Bolton

National Security Adviser John Bolton

Analysts have described the administration’s Syria policy as “messy” and confusing for allies.

Mr Pompeo’s Thursday speech appeared to be an attempt to reassure partners, while also reiterating Mr Trump’s decision to pull out troops.

“President Trump has made the decision to bring our troops home from Syria… but this isn’t a change of mission. We remain committed to the complete dismantling of the Isis [IS] threat,” he said, adding that the US also wanted its partners to “do more”.

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Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry

How did Pompeo criticise Obama – and why?

Mr Pompeo did not directly name Barack Obama, Mr Trump’s predecessor.

However, he referred frequently to a key speech Mr Obama gave in Cairo in 2009, where he had called for “a new beginning” for the US and the Middle East.

Mr Pompeo said: “It was here, here in this very city, another American stood before you. He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from ideology… He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed ‘a new beginning.’ The results of these misjudgements have been dire.”

“We were timid about asserting ourselves when the times – and our partners – demanded it,” he said.

The Trump administration has been critical of Mr Obama’s decision to strike a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear activities, and had accused him of being too soft on Islamist terrorism, and a poor ally to Israel.

National Security Action, a think tank involving many of Mr Obama’s former policy advisers, criticised Mr Pompeo’s speech.

“That this administration feels the need, nearly a decade later, to take pot-shots at an effort to identify common ground between the Arab world and the West speaks not only to the Trump administration’s pettiness, but also to its lack of a strategic vision for America’s role in the region,” it said in a statement

“Together with the broader administration he represents, Pompeo sees Islam as an enemy, human rights as a side concern, and autocrats worthy of embrace,” the group added.

Mr Pompeo’s Middle East tour will also see him stopping in countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE.

BBC News

U.S. warns Syria against use of chemical weapons

January 5, 2019

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton warned the Syrian government that it should not see the impending U.S. military withdrawal from the country as an invitation to use chemical weapons.

“There is absolutely no change in the U.S. 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 told reporters on his plane shortly before landing in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Hundreds of civilians were affected in the alleged poison gas attack in Aleppo. (AFP)

“So the regime, the Assad regime should be under no illusions on that question.”

A woman breathes through an oxygen mask after what Syrian state media said was a suspected gas attack in Aleppo [Sana/Reuters]
A person breathes through an oxygen mask after what Syrian state media said was a suspected gas attack in Aleppo [Sana/Reuters]

Bolton added: “As we elaborate how the 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.”

Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Alison Williams


See also:

Use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War




John Kerry

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a speech on Middle East peace at The U.S. Department of State. CREDIT: 2016 GETTY IMAGES/2016 GETTY IMAGES


 (From the BBC)

Lindsey Graham Suggests Syrian Troop Drawdown Will Take Longer Than 30 Days

December 31, 2018

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a vocal Republican critic of President Trump’s plan for a 30-day troop withdrawal of American troops from Syria, suggested on Sunday that the pullout had been slowed and that he felt “a lot better” about it after a lunch with the president.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaks to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, after his meeting with President Donald Trump, Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

“I think we’re in a pause situation where we are re-evaluating what’s the best way to achieve the president’s objective of having people pay more and do more,” Mr. Graham said.

He did not elaborate on what that meant. But he may have been referring to assurances that Mr. Trump is said to have given some military officials that they can have more time than 30 days to ensure a proper drawdown of troops.

Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement on Twitter this month that he planned to withdraw the 2,000 American troops in Syria over the advice of military officials drew strong objections from many of his usual allies, like Mr. Graham, and helped prompt Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign.

Mr. Graham told reporters outside the West Wing entrance Sunday afternoon that he and the president had had a frank discussion over lunch.

“We talked about Syria and he told me some things that I didn’t know that make me feel a lot better about where we’re headed in Syria,” Mr. Graham said. “He promised to destroy ISIS. He’s going to keep that promise. We’re not there yet, but as I said today, we’re inside the 10-yard line and the president understands the need to finish the job.”

Mr. Graham told reporters that Mr. Trump was “worried about Iranian influence and the potential dangers to Israel from having a superhighway from Beirut to Tehran in terms of delivering weapons into Lebanon, and he’ll be talking to Turkey about making sure we don’t have a war between the Turks and our allies the Kurds.”

In an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” before the lunch, Mr. Graham issued a starker warning about the threat to the Kurds, who are allied with the United States but whom Turkey regards as insurgents.

“If we leave now, the Kurds are going to get slaughtered,” Mr. Graham said, adding: “The president is reconsidering how we do this. He’s frustrated, I get that.”

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Lindsey Graham: Trump ordered a slowdown to the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria

December 31, 2018

President Donald Trump has ordered a slowdown to the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Syria, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday.

“I think we’re in a pause situation,” the South Carolina Republican said outside the White House after lunch with the president.

Trump announced earlier this month that he was ordering the withdrawal of all the roughly 2,000 troops from war-torn Syria, with aides expecting it to take place swiftly. The president had declared victory over the Islamic State group in Syria, though pockets of fighting remain.

Graham had been an outspoken critic of Trump’s decision, which had drawn bipartisan criticism. The announcement also had shocked lawmakers and American allies, including Kurds who have fought alongside the U.S. against the Islamic State group and face an expected assault by Turkey.

“I think we’re slowing things down in a smart way,” Graham said, adding that Trump was very aware of the plight of the Kurds.

Critics had contended that the U.S. withdrawal would embolden Iran and Russia, which have supported the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

‘Make sure ISIS never comes back’

National security adviser John Bolton was expected to travel to Israel and Turkey next weekend to discuss the president’s plans with the American allies.

During his appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Graham previewed his arguments to Trump for reconsidering the Syria pullout.

“I’m going to ask him to sit down with his generals and reconsider how to do this. Slow this down. Make sure that we get it right. Make sure ISIS never comes back. Don’t turn Syria over to the Iranians. That’s a nightmare for Israel,” Graham said.

“And, at the end of the day, if we leave the Kurds and abandon them and they get slaughtered, who’s going to help you in the future?” he said. “I want to fight the war in the enemy’s backyard, not ours. That’s why we need a forward-deployed force in Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan for a while to come.”


See also:

Graham: Trump still wants to leave Syria, but will reevaluate plan to attack ISIS

Russia argues Assad should get US-held territory in Syria — Oil Fields — Trump’s gift keeps on giving…

December 27, 2018

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad should gain control of the territory currently held by U.S. forces, whom President Trump has decided to withdraw from the country, a senior Russian diplomat said.

“We would like to understand exactly what they have in mind,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a Wednesday briefing.

“The question of fundamental importance is who will assume control of the regions the Americans will vacate,” said Zakharova. “It should be the Syrian government, yet we have no information about any contact on this issue between Washington and Damascus.”

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Zakharova’s comments show how Russia, which has joined Iran in propping up the Assad regime, hopes to take advantage of Trump’s unexpected decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s team had been planning to use the fact that major parts of the country are controlled by U.S.-backed rebels as leverage in negotiations at the United Nations that would deny victory to Assad in the civil war. Trump’s announcement last week scuttled that plan, raising the likelihood of a windfall for the Assad regime.

“The point at issue is not national U.S. territory but the territory of a sovereign state,” said Zakharova. “Since the declared actions will change U.S. strategy, we would like to understand exactly what they have in mind.”

It’s a high-stakes question, because just last year U.S.-partnered fighters won ” a race with Russian-backed Syrian troops to seize” the country’s major oil fields from the Islamic State, as the Associated Press put it. And newly formed Russian energy company Evropolis is expected to get a share of any oil taken from the fields that ISIS once held.

“The company is believed to be associated with Russian businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, who is also known as ‘Putin’s chef’, for his catering work with the Kremlin,” as Australian-based outlet the National observed Wednesday.

That might explain why a mercenary group linked to Prigozhin attacked a U.S. outpost near a gas plant in Deir al-Zour earlier this year. “Despite the February clashes, coalition war planes have largely deterred Russian and Iranian forces from attempting to seize back control of the oil and gas fields,” the National noted.

Russia hopes that a full U.S. withdrawal will stabilize Assad’s regime. “We believe that any positive change on the ground in Syria will produce a lasting positive effect only if it is backed by major improvements on the political track based on respect for Syria’s unity and territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Zakharova said.

Israel sees limits of Trump support with Syria pullout

December 24, 2018

Israeli leaders have lauded Donald Trump for his list of decisions in support of their country since taking office, but the mercurial president’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria will not rank among them.

After Trump’s surprise announcement of the pullout last week, Israel is concerned over whether its main enemy Iran will have a freer hand to operate in the neighbouring country, analysts say.

Israel’s response to the announcement has been measured — careful to point out that it respects the US decision, coupled with pledges to continue to defend its interests in Syria.

After Donald Trump's surprise announcement of the troop pullout last week, Israel is concerned its main enemy Iran will have a freer hand to operate in Syria

After Donald Trump’s surprise announcement of the troop pullout last week, Israel is concerned its main enemy Iran will have a freer hand to operate in Syria.  AFP/File

But beneath those public pronouncements are worries over whether Iran will seek to take advantage of the US absence from the war-torn country and if Russia will respond to Israel’s calls to limit it.

Beyond that, the manner in which the decision was taken and announced — and US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’s resignation in response — may also give Israeli leaders pause, some analysts say.

“Since it’s our major ally, we want the United States to be strong … and we want an ally which is being perceived in the region as strong and effective,” said Eyal Zisser, vice rector of Tel Aviv University and who has written extensively on Syria.

“And I think that what worries some Israelis is what message does this decision — the way it was taken, what stood behind it — send to the region?”

– ‘Even expand our activities’ –

The United States has only around 2,000 troops in Syria focused on fighting the Islamic State group, but they have been deployed in two areas along the Iraqi border, helping keep Iranian movement into the country in check.

There have been warnings from Israel and others that Iran is seeking to form a “land bridge” across to the Mediterranean, and some analysts have said that the US withdrawal could help that effort.

With Iran supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s civil war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long pledged to keep it from entrenching itself militarily next door.

Israel has repeatedly taken action, carrying out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against what it says are Iranian military targets and advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese group.

With the United States pulling out, Israel may look more to Russia, which is also backing Assad, to use its influence to limit Iran, some analysts say.

But that is not a given, and a friendly fire incident in September that led to a Russian plane being downed by Syrian air defences during an Israeli strike remains an issue.

The incident angered Russia and complicated Israel’s operations in Syria, particularly after Moscow’s delivery of the advanced S-300 air defence system there in response.

Netanyahu and Israel’s military chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, on Sunday sought to tamp down concerns over the withdrawal.

The Israeli premier has indicated he was not taken off-guard, saying he had spoken with Trump two days before the December 19 announcement as well as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the previous day.

“The decision to remove the 2,000 US soldiers from Syria won’t change our consistent policy,” Netanyahu said Sunday.

“We will continue to act against Iran’s attempt to establish a military presence in Syria, and if the need arises, we will even expand our activities there.”

– ‘A free ride’ –

Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu and ex-military intelligence official, noted US troops were not directly involved in Israel’s fight against Iran’s presence in Syria.

But he said concerns over whether Iran will take advantage of the US withdrawal were legitimate.

“From now on, it will be a free ride for the Iranians and they will use the corridor logistically to enhance their capabilities to build the military forces in Syria and to help Hezbollah afterwards,” he told AFP.

An analysis by the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank said “Israel is among the most important losers” of the withdrawal, along with the United States’ Kurdish allies in Syria.

But Netanyahu has vowed that Israel will continue to “defend ourselves” and Eisenkot, the military chief of staff, called it “a significant event but it should not be overstated”.

“For decades we’ve been handling this front alone,” said Eisenkot.