Israel Voices Concern Over US Pullout From Syria
By Linda Gradstein October 24, 2019
The U.S. decision to remove almost all of its troops from Syria is creating waves in neighboring Israel as well. Israelis worry the move could lead to a resurgence of Islamic State and give Iran more freedom of movement. On a broader level, it raises questions about the U.S. commitment to its allies, including Israel.
Iran has long been Israel's greatest concern. Israel Army Radio reported that Israel is stepping up its defenses over fears that Iran could launch a missile strike against Israel, as retaliation for a series of Israeli strikes on weapons convoys in Iraq and Syria that Israel says were destined for Hezbollah.
The Israeli radio report, which cited unnamed sources, said Israel was focusing its efforts on stopping low-flying cruise missiles and drones, which are harder to detect than ballistic missiles that can be intercepted.
Israel is worried that Iran is trying to build a land bridge from Iraq to Syria and assert greater control in the Middle East. Now, with the U.S. leaving Syria, Iran could have more of a free hand on Israel's northern border.
But some Israeli analysts say they do not believe the U.S. pullout will make a direct difference.
"I know there are people concerned about Iran building a land bridge from Iraq to Syria," (retired) General Shlomo Brom, an expert on Lebanon and Syria, said in an interview. "But that is already happening with U.S. forces present."
Brom said he was concerned, however, about what he calls "indirect implications" of the U.S. pullback.
"It shows U.S. weakness and the weakening position of the U.S. in the Middle East," he said. "The alliance between Israel and the U.S. is so strong, and it is an essential element of its strategy. So if the U.S. is weakening, then Israel is weakening."
President Donald Trump said a small number of U.S. troops will remain in Syria at the request of Israel and Jordan.
"The other region where we've been asked by Israel and Jordan to leave a small number of troops is a totally different section of Syria, near Jordan, and close to Israel," Trump said when asked whether he would leave soldiers in Syria. "So we have a small group there, and we secured the oil. Other than that, there's no reason for it, in our opinion."
Israeli officials have long said that Israel must be prepared to take care of itself, and that opinion has only strengthened recently.
There also are fears the pullout could strengthen Islamic State. There are reports from Syria that more than 100 Islamic State prisoners escaped jails in the area attacked by Turkey. There is no evidence, though, that Islamic State is planning a direct attack on Israel.
It also appears that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is taking control of some of the areas in Syria that previously had been held by the Kurds. While Assad is far from a democratic leader, the Israeli-Syrian border was quiet for decades. Even now, during the past eight years of fighting, the border has been relatively calm. In several incidents where mortar fire has spilled over into the Golan Heights, Assad has worked to calm tensions.
Israel has stayed out of the eight-year civil war, except for medical aid for civilians in southern Syria. Thousands of civilians have been treated in Israeli hospitals. Officially, Israel says the future of Syria is up to the Syrian people. But privately, many officials say having Assad remain in charge is the best outcome Israel could have hoped for given the alternative of chaos or Islamic State gaining control.
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