Israeli Army Chief: U.S. Leaving Syria Is 'Significant,' but We Shouldn't Exaggerate

Chief of staff says the idea that West Bank tension must be met by greater force is misguided

U.S. soldiers gather for a brief during a combined joint patrol rehearsal in Manbij, Syria, November 7, 2018.
Spc. Zoe Garbarino,AP

Israeli military Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said on Sunday that U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw American troops from Syria is "significant," but should not be overblown.

"The Russian presence in Syria since the end of 2015 created a new situation," Eisenkot told a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

"It required us to enter a dialogue to create a system to prevent friction, and it has been a factor affecting how we have used force. Through the entire period, I as chief of staff have felt that there has been an understanding regarding Israel's security needs."

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Although Russia and Israel established a system to avoid friction between Israeli aircraft operating in Syria and Russian military planes in the area,  a Russian aircraft was downed by Syrian anti-aircraft missiles during an Israeli airstrike in September. The Russians blamed Israel for the mishaps, a claim that Israel vigorously denied.

"For decades, we have dealt with this front alone," Eisenkot said regarding Syria, adding that Israel has acted independently during the entire period. "That's also how it has been over the past four years, during the American and Russian presence [in Syria]. We have been acting in support of Israel's security interests."

In an abrupt policy shift, Trump announced on Wednesday that Washington would withdraw the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, upending a pillar of American policy in the Middle East and alarming U.S. allies. The decision was followed on Thursday by the surprise departure of U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, who in a resignation letter to Trump laid bare the growing divide between the two over foreign policy.

In his speech on Sunday, Eisenkot also addressed the attack tunnels built by Hezbollah under Israel's border with Lebanon, which were publicly disclosed at the beginning of the month. Israel discovered Hezbollah's plans four years ago and developed a highly compartmentalized program to foil the militia's plans "without leading to war," Eisenkot said.

"The Israeli army has been on a high state of readiness over the past month for any serious development around this," he said. "I am pleased that up to now most of the routes penetrating into the territory of the State of Israel have been found and I assume that we will complete the mission in the near future."

The Israeli army announced on Friday that it began destroying the tunnels a day earlier. The army said it blew up a cross-border tunnel dug from the Lebanese village of Ramia on Thursday night and "will continue its mission of exposing and destroying the tunnels according to plan." 

Eisenkot also turned his attention to the situation in the West Bank, where there has been a spate of terrorist attacks in recent weeks. "There's the thinking here that if we only apply more force against terrorism, it will end. That's a mistaken approach," he said. "I frequently hear that deterrence has collapsed, but such a concept is elusive. Deterrence doesn't drop and isn't built in a day."

"Our enemies understand our intelligence and air superiority. They see that we are acting against them, against Iran and Hezbollah and against Gaza as well. The way in which our enemies understand our capabilities provides us with the capacity to act and to cause our enemies not to act."