Netanyahu on U.S. Syria Pullout: Israel Will Expand Military Action Against Iran if Needed

Prime minister says Trump's decision will not affect Israel's policy ■ Remarks come after army chief says development is 'significant,' but shouldn't be overblown

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits Israeli soldiers in the north, December 11, 2018.
Gil Eliahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that the American military withdrawal from Syria will not affect Israel's policy toward the war-torn country.

"The decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria will not change our consistent policy: We will continue to act against Iran's attempts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, and to the extent necessary, we will even expand our actions there." Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. 

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.

>> Read more: Trump capitulated, shocking Bolton and Erdogan: How Syria withdrawal call unfolded ■ U.S. exit from Syria could redraw map of Middle East's blocs ■ Trump just betrayed the Kurds, America's best defense against ISIS

"I would like to reassure those who are concerned. Our cooperation with the US will continue in full and finds expression in many areas: Operations, intelligence and many other security spheres," Netanyahu said.

Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot also commented on U.S. President Donald Trump's decision Sunday, saying it is "significant," but should not be overblown

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.

"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."

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."