WASHINGTON (AFP) — The United States does not want to be the “policeman” of the Middle East, US President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday, as he defended his controversial decision to pull US forces out of Syria.
“Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight….,” he tweeted.
Trump added: “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us. “I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!”
The US president faced intense opposition to his abrupt announcement Wednesday that the Islamic State terror group had been defeated in the region, and that he was ordering the 2,000 US troops in Syria to exit the country. Today, the Secretary of Defense resigned in protest about the President's decision.
Trump’s decision runs counter to long-established US policy for Syria and the region. It blindsided lawmakers, the Pentagon and international allies alike. It shocked even Republican lawmakers, who called his decision rash and dangerous. “Getting out of Syria was no surprise,” Trump wrote in an earlier tweet. “I’ve been campaigning on it for years, and six months ago, when I very publicly wanted to do it, I agreed to stay longer. “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing their work. Time to come home & rebuild.
The US withdrawal could have major geopolitical ramifications, and plunges into uncertainty the fate of US-backed Kurdish fighters who have been tackling Islamic State jihadists, thousands of whom are thought to remain in Syria.
The announced pull out also raised concern in Israel, which has warned of Iran’s efforts to establish a military presence in Syria and has carried out airstrikes on Iranian-linked targets there.
Israel has repeatedly vowed to prevent Iran establishing a permanent presence in Syria and Lebanon and has carried out dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
In April, two US officials told the Associated Press that a phone call at the time between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grew tense over Israeli objections to US plans to leave Syria within six months.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Thursday that Israel would step up its fight against Iran’s military presence in Syria, amid concerns that the US military’s announced pull out from the war-torn country would limit the Jewish state’s ability to operate there.
“We will continue to aggressively act against Iran’s efforts to entrench in Syria,” said Netanyahu, who also serves as Israel’s foreign minister and defense minister.
“We do not plan to reduce our efforts. We will increase them, and I know that we will do this with the full support and backing from the United States of America,” he said, speaking at a trilateral summit in Beersheba with leaders from Greece and Cyprus.
Netanyahu also discussed the military’s operation to locate and destroy cross-border attack tunnels that Israel says the Hezbollah terror group dug from southern Lebanon.
“We are continuing in our efforts to thwart those terror tunnels. We are now using special means in order to specially neutralize these tunnels,” he said. The Israeli military refused to comment on the subject.
Though US President Donald Trump has in the past said he intended to pull American troops out of Syria, Wednesday’s announcement caught many State Department and Department of Defense officials off guard. Many details of the plan to remove the approximately 2,000 US troops from Syria remain unclear, notably the exact timeline.
For Israel, the pull out leaves it without a staunch ally in the fight against Iran in Syria and potentially opens the door for the Islamic Republic to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.
Until now, American troops have been stationed in north eastern Syria, along the Iraqi border, blocking such a corridor, through which Iran could more easily distribute advanced weapons and technology throughout the region, especially to its Lebanese client the Hezbollah terrorist army.
“I spoke with US President Donald Trump [on Monday] and yesterday with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told me that it was the president’s intention to withdraw their forces from Syria and made it clear that they had other ways to express their influence in the arena,” Netanyahu said.
“This is, of course, America’s decision,” he added. “We will study the timetable, the mode of operation, and of course the implications for us. In any case, we will take care to protect Israel’s security and to protect ourselves from that arena.”
But Israeli opposition leaders warned that the US departure would undermine Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran deepening its presence across the northern border, and said Trump’s decision to leave marked a diplomatic failure by the prime minister.
Israel’s Channel 10 news reported that Netanyahu tried in vain to persuade Trump to change his mind, and that there was tremendous “disappointment” in Jerusalem over the pull out, which is regarded as a victory for Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The TV report described the US move as “a slap in the face” for Israel, noting that the US presence in Syria was “the only bargaining chip” in Israel’s efforts to persuade Russia to prevent Iran deepening its entrenchment in Syria.
A US official told AFP that Trump’s decision was finalized Tuesday. “Full withdrawal, all means all,” the official said when asked if US troops would be pulled from all of Syria.
Trump seemed to confirm a string of media reports which cited US officials as saying the withdrawal was already prepared and would be rapidly carried out. The president tweeted that the Islamic State had been “defeated” in Syria and that eradicating the jihadist terror group was the only reason troops were still in the war-torn country.
Opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union tweeted that Trump’s statement that IS was the purpose of the US mission showed a dangerous disregard for the growing Iranian presence.
“The USA is withdrawing its forces from Syria with the claim that IS was the only reason for them being in the country, the disregard for Iranian entrenchment in Syria is dangerous to Israel,” she tweeted. “A political-security failure recorded under Netanyahu’s name.”
Yesh Atid party head MK Yair Lapid said that the US withdrawal constituted a failure in Israel’s foreign policy which would enable Iran to increase its foothold in Syria.
“It opens the way for Iranian entrenchment and diminishes Israel’s bargaining ability with the Russians,” he said.
Reuters cited a US official saying the Trump had made the decision to pull out the troops while on a phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Everything that has followed is implementing the agreement that was made in that call,” the official said.
Iran, together with its proxy the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group, has been helping the Syrian regime end a rebellion which began seven years ago. Russia, a Syria ally has also been assisting Damascus against the rebels.
Israel Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon said Israel will respect the US decision, but vowed the country will do whatever it needs to protect its citizens, no matter which foreign forces are in Syria.
“It is a US decision, we respect the decision made by the administration,” Danon told reporters at the UN headquarters in New York. “We have our concerns about Syria, about the threat of Iranian troops in Syria, and we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people, regardless if you have American troops, Russian troops, or any other nation.”