Netanyahu urging Trump to maintain southern Syrian foothold against ISIS

At the core of the dispute is Trump’s concentration on ISIS in determining whether to pull out of Syria.

By David Jablinowitz, World Israel News

U.S. troops in a small outpost in the south of Syria may be preparing for a longer stay, due in part to a request from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even as American administration and military officials try to work out the details of President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw from Syria, according to a report in Bloomberg. 

“The American base at Al-Tanf, originally established as a southern foothold against Islamic State (ISIS) and a training ground for Syrian rebels, has become one of the main obstacles to the president’s plan to leave. Israeli and some U.S. officials argue that a continued American presence there is critical to interrupting Iran’s supply lines into Lebanon, where Hezbollah…has been building up its arsenal,” says the U.S. media outlet.

American troops at the base have set up a 55-kilometer “deconfliction zone,” which includes part of the strategic Damascus-to-Baghdad highway. The surrounding territory is controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

When Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal, he cited a defeat of ISIS as the justification. He then backtracked a bit, acknowledging that pockets of the terror network still existed in Syria.

He slowed the process of the withdrawal due to opposing voices he heard from within the U.S. military. He tried to deflect the calls for a wider perspective in determining his policy, countering that countries closer to Syria should be filling the void.

Along those lines, he was willing to hand over such responsibility to Turkey, which neighbors Syria. When that move raised eyebrows in various circles, Trump warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against exploiting his power to slaughter Kurdish fighters supported by the U.S. but viewed as terrorists by Turkey. However, Turkish officials vowed to pursue their own policy regardless of U.S. moves.

The complex maze of what remains of Syria leaves the White House with the problem, as well, of what to do about Israel’s main problem: Iran.

“The administration also wants to constrain Iran’s influence, including by limiting its ability to use Syria as a launching point for operations against Israel,” writes Bloomberg.

“Netanyahu has been doing his best, and he has the president’s ear, according to one senior U.S. diplomat, who asked not to be named citing confidential discussions. Netanyahu has repeatedly urged the U.S. to keep troops at Al-Tanf, according to several senior Israeli officials, who also asked not to be identified discussing private talks. Even if they don’t do much, the mere presence of American troops will act as a deterrent to Iran, the Israelis say,” according to the report.

That argument is said to hold sway with anti-Iran hardliners in the U.S. administration, including National Security Adviser John Bolton.

One of the problems posed is how the U.S. could maintain a relatively small presence of no more than a few hundred troops at Al-Tanf as Assad reimposes his grip on the rest of the country.

Russia has been skeptical of Trump’s announcement from the start.

Bloomberg quotes Frants Klintsevich, a member of the defense and security committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, as saying in a phone interview Friday: “Once they are in, they stay,” though he predicted that “in the end the U.S. will just have this Al-Tanf base, and nothing more.” When that happens, “Russia and Syria will increase pressure on the U.S. to withdraw,” said the Russian parliamentarian.