The US will relocate its military operations to Iraq and the Mediterranean, after drawing down its troops in Syria, Defense Secretary James Mattis disclosed to Congress on Thursday, April 26. His comments were enigmatic: “Right now we are not withdrawing US troops from Syria,” Mattis said. “You’ll see increased operations on the Iraqi side of the border and the French just reinforced us in Syria with special forces here in the last two weeks. This is an ongoing fight right now,” he said.
But what did he mean?
US sources explain that while Washington is committed to fighting Islamic State terrorists, a US troop presence in Syria is not essential and the war can be fought from outside, e.g., Iraq.
Russian or Syrian sources understand him to mean that the US Is going to “expand the fight in Syria.” The British understand the defense secretary to be suggesting that he expects the US to “probably regret not keeping a holding force in Syria,” The French had no comment on Mattis’ remark about their boosted presence in Syria. The truth is that their president Emmanuel Macron leaned over backwards to make his state visit with President Trump this week a success, even if it meant ramping up French military involvement in Syria as a potential replacement for the US contingent that Trump is determined to withdraw.
The Israelis have made every effort to persuade the Americans to stay put in Syria. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman traveled to Washington this week, two days after Gen. Joseph Votel, head of the US Central Command, visited Israel. Lieberman’s trip was found necessary since the US general declined to address the US exit plan’s military and strategic damage to Israel’s security. It was Lieberman’s task to bring home to the administration that the moment American troops leave Syria, Israel was threatened with a military confrontation with Iran and Hizballah. At his meetings with Secretary Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton, he asked the administration to consider holding off on the troop withdrawal for now.
There was no official word on the outcome of the Mattis-Lieberman interview on Thursday. But its content was reflected in comments Mattis made to the Senate Armed Forces Committee later that day. He said he believes a military confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria is becoming increasingly likely. “I can see how it might start, but I am not sure when or where. I think it’s very likely in Syria, because Iran continues to do its proxy work there through Hizballah.” He then added: Israel “will not wait to see those missiles in the air and we hope Iran would pull back.” He flatly accused Iran of not only expanding and strengthening its presence in Syria but also “bringing advanced weapons for Hizballah through Syria.”
These comments had a sequel. On Friday, Pentagon officials disclosed that US satellites, surveillance aircraft, drones and ships had stepped up operations to monitor the movement of suspected Iranian anti-air and ballistic missiles inside Syria “due to rising concerns they could be used to strike Israel in the coming days.”
The US defense secretary had evidently bought Lieberman’s presentation, but his reaction disappointed Israel, DEBKAfile’s military sources report. He took with the utmost seriousness a possible Iranian or Hizballah attack on Israel in the coming days, but reacted by ordering the USS Harry S. Truman Carrier cruising opposite Syria to stay alert for this eventuality. The Trump administration clearly means to stay in the arena but is sticking to the decision to draw down the US troop presence in Syria, whatever may happen, while moving the center of US military operations instead to Iraq and the Mediterranean Sea.