Israel braces for US withdrawal from Syria

The Trump administration will withdraw thousands of troops from Syria, announced a U.S. official, potentially leaving Israel on its own to battle Iranian expansion on its doorstep.

By Associated Press and World Israel News Staff

The Trump administration will withdraw all of the approximately 2,000 American troops in Syria, according to a U.S. official, as the White House declared victory Wednesday in the mission to defeat Islamic State forces there.

Planning for the pullout has begun and troops will begin leaving as soon as possible, said the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss military planning and spoke on condition of anonymity. President Donald Trump said American forces no longer were needed in a country torn apart by long-running civil war.

Trump has said since he was a presidential candidate that he wanted to bring back troops from the Middle East. But officials have said in recent weeks that pockets of IS militants remain. U.S. policy has been that American forces would stay in place until the extremists were eradicated.

In addition, Pentagon and other officials have said that U.S. troops were countering Iran-backed militants in Syria, which was an expansion of the U.S. mission.

Trump said on Twitter: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

His tweet followed a series of news reports that the U.S. was preparing to withdraw its troops from Syria. The news was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.

Syria’s neighbor, Israel, has long declared that Iran’s military entrenchment on its doorstep is a red line the Jewish state will not tolerate. To that end, Israeli air strikes have targeted Iranian military personnel and assets, which have helped Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad battle insurgents in a bloody civil war that has dragged on for over seven years.

The extent to which U.S. troop withdrawal will affect Israel’s efforts to beat back Iran’s presence in Syria remains to be seen.

In response to the U.S. announcement regarding withdrawal from Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented that in discussions with Trump on Monday and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday, “The American administration . . . made it clear that they have other ways of expressing their influence in the area. This is, of course, an American decision. We will study its timetable, how it will be implemented and – of course – its implications for us. In any case we will take care to maintain the security of Israel and to defend ourselves in this area.”

Earlier in the year, a phone call between Netanyahu and Trump reportedly became strained over Israel’s rejection of the U.S.’ six-month Syria exit plan, according to an Associated Press report.

Israeli lawmaker Yair Lapid posted to Twitter that the pullout would “pave the way for Iran to achieve a foothold.”

Reports of an abrupt withdrawal drew quick criticism from Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said a full and rapid removal of troops would be a “grave error with broader implications” beyond the fight against ISIS.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham also objected to the announcement, tweeting, “President @realDonaldTrump is right to want to contain Iranian expansion. However, withdrawal of our forces in Syria mightily undercuts that effort and puts our allies, the Kurds at risk.”

Responding to the reports, Pentagon spokesman Col. Rob Manning said in a statement that “at this time, we continue to work by, with and through our partners in the region.”

The U.S. first launched airstrikes against IS fighters in Syria in 2014. In the years that followed, the U.S. began partnering with Syrian ground forces to fight the extremists.

The Pentagon recently said that IS now controls just 1 percent of the territory they originally held.