A critical question was left unanswered when US National Security Adviser John Bolton flew out of Israel after his talks with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Monday Jan 7: Will the US Air Force contingents in Syria be withdrawn along with the US troops?
Netanyahu asked Bolton whether the undertaking he had received from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his visit to Israel last April was still in force. It was agreed then that the US Air Force would grant Israeli air and/or other operations in Syria air cover if necessary, and Israel would reciprocate if American forces in Syria needed military back-up. However, in the interim, President Donald Trump announced he was pulling US troops out of Syria, leaving Jerusalem uncertain as to whether the Pompeo-Netanyahu understanding still stood. Netanyahu wanted to find out if an American air force presence would remain in the Syria arena after the pullout. But Bolton did not have the answer to that question, either because he was being cagy or honestly didn’t know. (See a separate article on this.)
Turkey shares Israel’s concerns on this score, but President Tayyip Erdogan waited for Bolton to arrive in Ankara the next day with Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff and James Jeffrey, Trump’s special adviser on Syria and the war on ISIS. He then refused to receive them. Erdogan insists on lumping the US-backed Syrian Kurdish militias in the same terrorist basket as ISIS and threatens to fight them both. This approach is unacceptable to Washington. (For the fresh crisis that erupted on Tuesday between Ankara and Washington, see a separate article.)
If indeed US air force units are pulled out of Syria, Turkey will be forced to abandon air flights over the country for fear of being shot down by Russian warplanes or air defense missiles. Israel, however, is committed to eliminating the Iranian military presence in Syria. For five months, IDF warplanes circled around Syrian air space and directed its fire from Lebanese skies. But at some point, it is realized in Washington and Moscow, Israel will have to go back to air strikes over Syria and take its chances against Russian air and missile responses.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that these decisions depend on another unknown quantity, which the Israelis put before Bolton in Jerusalem: Are the Russians about to boost their Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia? Our sources report that the Americans sought an answer to this question by sending a US Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon on a reconnaissance flight near Khmeimim on Jan. 5. The plane, which took off from the Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, cruised some two hours near the Syrian coast at an altitude of 4,700 meters. It made several approaches to Khmeimim to pick up any signs of preparations for the intake of additional aircraft. This data is critical for Washington as well as Jerusalem, because if Moscow is enlarging its air strength in Syria, this would point to a decision to take advantage of the exit of US forces as an opportunity to bring to a halt Israel’s air operations over Syria and to evict the Turkish military units which have taken up position in northern Syria. The problem is that the data the Poseidon brought back was ambivalent and insufficient for determining Russia’s intentions. In these circumstances, the question of whether to leave or withdraw the US air force presence from Syria bounces back onto the head of President Trump. (see a separate article on this.)