Benjamin Netanyahu’s words, coming after Donald Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of US military forces from Syria, sounded like something not that far from an outright declaration of war.
“We will continue to aggressively act against Iran’s efforts to entrench in Syria,” Netanyahu said on Thursday at a summit in Beersheba. “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.”
The Israeli Prime Minister doesn’t care much about whether ISIS has really been defeated as Trump claims. He has only one goal in mind: to lead Israel to a more aggressive stance towards the presence of Iranian forces in Syria, allies of President Bashar al-Assad. The withdrawal of some 2,000 US troops from the northern territories of Syria could help him achieve this goal. The apocalyptic tone of many articles that have appeared in the Israeli press about a supposed “abandonment” by Trump of the Jewish state has little to do with reality, notwithstanding the fact that in September, US National Security Adviser John Bolton had given reassurances that American troops would not leave Syria before Iran withdraws from the country.
Israel wants to engage once more in forceful strikes in Syria against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Hezbollah Lebanese Shiite movement. It has faced an obstacle for several weeks now, in the form of the small crisis in its relationship with Moscow that began after the downing earlier this year of a Russian cargo plane landing in Syria, which Vladimir Putin and his generals called a diversionary maneuver by Israeli fighter-bombers. This “incident” prompted Russia to deliver an S-300 anti-aircraft defense system to Damascus, which has severely limited the movements of Israeli fighter jets in the skies over Syria.
Netanyahu has pledged to renew the agreement with Putin that since 2015 had allowed Israel to conduct strikes in Syria unimpeded, with the blessing of Russia, an ally of Assad. The signals coming from Moscow are relatively encouraging for Israel. According to some sources, the Russian president would be willing to forgive the downing of the plane and the death of the 15 Russian airmen in exchange for a more “responsible” attitude by Israel, but he is being held back by his military commanders. With an express permission from Trump, and, possibly, with Putin’s tacit permission in the future, Netanyahu would finally have the freedom of action that he wants.
Furthermore, the Israeli premier is also under pressure from the former Israeli defense minister, the ultranationalist Avigdor Lieberman. On Thursday, in an interview conducted by Israel Radio, the radio station of the Israeli armed forces, Lieberman said that “the withdrawal of the US from Syria significantly raises the chance of an all-out conflict in the north — both [in] Lebanon and Syria,” because the departure of US troops stationed in the area of the Syrian border with Iraq means that now there will be “contiguous Shiite land between Iran, Iraq and Syria.” In effect, Lieberman hinted that, had he been in charge, he would have already unleashed a military offensive against Iran, and that he would have attacked Gaza as well if Netanyahu hadn’t stopped him.
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