Trump’s Surprise for Netanyahu: The US Military Will Obstruct Iran’s Push into Syria
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was in for a surprise when he sat down with President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday, March 5. He found the president had jumped the gun on him. Netanyahu had planned to ask the president to retain – and even ramp up – the US troop presence in eastern and northern Syria, especially on the east bank of the River Euphrates, as a bulwark against Iran’s buildup of a permanent military presence in Syria. Reinforcements had become necessary because the Kurdish YPG commandos serving with the American army in those regions, were going AWOL and making tracks west for Afrin in northern Syria to help their brothers repel the Turkish invasion.
But before he could present this case, Netanyahu found Trump laying before him a detailed US plan for blocking the Syrian-Iraqi border against Iranian Al Qods chief, Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s designs. The Iranian general was on the point of pumping large numbers of Iraqi Shiite militiamen into Syria and opening the border for two-way traffic, a project which had gained Moscow’s backing.
Neither the president nor the prime minister doubted that Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Middle East military operations, would find a way to weasel around the American barrier. But this would require time and he would be stalled for some months.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources have obtained exclusive access to the six-point Trump plan put before the Israeli prime minister, which is revealed here for the first time:
- The 2,500 Marines now positioned on the Syrian-Iraqi border are to be boosted by another 2,500. The first 1,000 landed last week at the Al-Tanf garrison which controls the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border junction.
- The Pentagon instructed US Air Force commands in Iraq and the Gulf region
to double their surveillance flights over the 1,000-km long Syrian-Iraqi border. This directive was addressed to the command centers at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the USS Theodore Roosevelt “Big Stick” aircraft carrier, which is cruising in the Arabian Sea and the combat helicopters berthed in the Kurdish cantons of northern Syria. They were ordered expressly to strike forthwith, without checking first with Washington, upon receipt from aerial reconnaissance or intelligence data confirming that military forces were attempting to cross the Euphrates from west to east or trying to cross into Syria from Iraq. By this directive, the US has created an effective no-fly zone in eastern Syria along the full length of its border with Iraq.
- Trump explained that the plan was well advanced. Moscow had been given notice of the new situation prevailing in this border region with a warning: Russian troops or hired guns assisting any future bids by Syrian or pro-Iranian forces to cross the river from west to east did so at their peril. The Americans were ready for another fight like the one that took place at Deir ez-Zour on Feb. 7. If a US air assault was not enough to stop those forces in their tracks, US Marines would be sent in.
- The US also relayed warnings to Damascus via the Russians as well as to Tehran. The president informed Netanyahu that, as they spoke, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was in Tehran relaying a similar warning to Iranian leaders.
- Washington will upgrade the weaponry of Kurdish forces in eastern and northern Syria. The new items would include anti-air and anti-tank weapons.
- Trump briefed Netanyahu on the details of Saudi and Jordanian involvement in the project for distancing Iran and its proxies from Syria. Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command CENTCOM, was given the go-ahead in the last week of February to start recruiting fighters from the Sunni Arab tribes of the western Iraqi region of Anbar. Their mission would be to seal the border from the Iraqi side. His target is a force of 10,000 fighting men. The president said that the Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MbS) had agreed to foot the bill for creating this force. Jordan was contributing officers from its special operations forces, with experience of warfare in these regions, for training the new force. The US will supply their arms.
Bucked up by Trump’s disclosure, Netanyahu was able to declare with heightened confidence in a speech the next day to the annual conference of the Israeli lobby, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), that Iran is “also seeking to develop, to build precision guided missile factories in Syria and Lebanon against Israel. I will not let that happen. We will not let that happen. We must stop Iran. We will stop Iran.”
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources this week noted that Gen. Soleimani had taken his first step in response to the new US strategy. He has doubled the number of military transport planes flying in from Iran to Syrian air bases. At the same time, there have been no Israel air strikes against Iranian targets in Syria for nearly a month. The last one was on Feb. 10. They may be expected to restart quite soon.