Speaking at the fifth Israel-Greece-Cyprus summit held in the southern city of Beersheba on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to intensify military action in Syria after the White House’s unexpected order for all US troops to pullout out of the country — an effort that’s expected to be complete within months.
“We will continue to act in Syria to prevent Iran’s efforts to militarily entrench itself against us. We are not reducing our efforts, we will increase our efforts. I know that we do so with the full support and backing of the US,” Netanyahu said. The prime minister further revealed he was personally warned in advance that the American pullout was imminent during phone conversations with President Trump on Monday and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.
Netanyahu has long lobbied the White House to take more aggressive action inside Syria while also praising and pledging support for all past US bombings targeting Damascus and the Syrian Army. Israeli officials have for years touted claims of Iran “taking control” and becoming deeply “entrenched” in Syria — something a number of analysts have doubted given that Damascus’ secular Baathist political ideology doesn’t mesh with Iran’s hardline theocratic Shi’ism, beyond being close strategic allies confronting regional threats (namely the Sunni Gulf-NATO-Israeli axis).
The prime minister also addressed ongoing IDF operations to destroy “attack tunnels” Hezbollah dug along the northern border, saying “These tunnels were built by Hezbollah with direct support and funding from Iran.” Continuing his well-known Iranian expansion theme, Netanyahu continued: “This is the Iranian web of aggression in the Middle East, which also terrorizes Europe and the entire world. Israel continues its operation against the terror tunnels and will do so until its completion. As we speak, we are employing means to neutralize these tunnels.” Netanyahu noted that his prior phone call with Trump this week focused on countering the Iran threat in the region.
Notably US officials said Thursday that the Pentagon will likely halt the air campaign targeting ISIS once all troops are pulled out. Trump had declared American victory over ISIS the day prior. He wrote via Titter: “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?” And added. “Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight.”
The President also said that US troops should leave and that “others” should handle the terror threat inside Syria. While he explicitly suggested that US “enemies” Iran, Russia, and Syria should be left to deal with fighting ISIS remnants, could the president also have had increased Israeli action in mind when it comes to the Iran threat in Syria?
Despite Netanyahu’s latest provocative vow to “increase our efforts” in Syria, his threat has significant limits in terms of what Israel can actually do, given Moscow’s recently completing delivery of its feared S-300 anti-air defense systems to Damascus. Additionally Syrian and Russian officials have of late signaled Damascus will retaliate in equal measure against any military attack.
Without doubt any new Israeli attack on Syria, which would likely be launched by jets flying above Lebanese airspace (as with all recent attacks), would be met with a serious Syrian and possibly Russian response.