Trump launches full US withdrawal from Syria, leaving opening for Iran

Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Donald Trump launched a full and accelerated pullout of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, a move that could leave a vacuum that Iran will be eager to fill.

The move will be seen in the region as diminishing the U.S. role in setting the terms for an end to the civil war that has engulfed the country since 2011.

Trump on Wednesday confirmed the reports of a pullout in a tweet. “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” he said, referring to the near-ouster of forces belonging to the Islamic State terrorist movement, which comprised part of the resistance to the Assad regime.

A White House statement later elaborated. “We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign,” it said. “The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders.”

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The Israeli government likely will be rattled by the decision. Remaining in Syria are Russian and Iranian advisers as well as troops belonging to Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist militia allied with Iran. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are aligned with the Assad regime. Turkey, which also has exercised influence in Syria, has backed the rebels.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that any final status settlement to the war must include the removal of Iranian influence from Syria, and the removal of U.S. troops substantially diminishes U.S. leverage to achieve that outcome.

A statement from Netanyahu’s office was notably cautious, withholding praise for the decision, but noting that Trump had given him advance notice.

“I spoke with US President Donald Trump on Monday and with American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday,” Netanyahu said in the statement.

“The American administration told me that it is the president’s intention to withdraw their forces from Syria,” Netanyahu said. “They 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.”

The opposition leader, the Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni, almost immediately described the news as a failure for Netanyahu. “The United States is withdrawing its forces from Syria, saying that ISIS was the only reason for its presence in the country,” she said. “Ignoring the Iranian entrenchment in Syria is dangerous for Israel. A diplomatic-security failure, made in the name of Netanyahu.”

Russian officials said that Iranian forces should remain outside a 60-mile perimeter near Israel’s border but otherwise have suggested that Israeli might have to live with permanent Iranian influence on the country.

According to the reports, the United States will keep troops in Iraq who will be capable of strikes inside Syria.

A key feature of Trump’s 2016 campaign and of his foreign policy as president has been the removal of U.S. troops from overseas theaters and loosening alliances.

Netanyahu has in the past said that Trump has greenlighted the actions Israel needs to take to contain Iran, including air strikes on Iranian, Assad regime and Hezbollah targets, and has resisted claims that the Trump administration and Israel are at odds on Syria policy. Netanyahu has said that relations with the United States under Trump, who moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and pulled out of a nuclear deal with Iran that Netanyahu reviled, are closer than ever.