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Amid Talk Of U.S. Troop Withdrawal, Haley Says Containing Iran Top Priority

U.S. soldiers near the tense front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018
U.S. soldiers near the tense front line between the U.S-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has outlined three goals of the Trump administration in Syria: a ban on the use of chemical weapons, a full defeat of ISIS, and preventing Iran from “taking over the area.”

“We want to make sure that the influence of Iran doesn't take over the area,” Haley said in an April 15 appearance on CBS’ Face The Nation. “They continue to cause problems throughout the region, and we want to make sure that there is a hold.”

Haley denied the existence of any fixed date for the return of U.S. troops from Syria, insisting, “we haven't said that we're going to bring them home in six months. What we are saying is at some point we want to see our military come home.”

But later, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders once again reiterated that President Donald Trump "has been clear that he wants U.S. forces to come home as quickly as possible."

While these two statements are not exactly contradictory, the prevailing sense among observers is that Trump is not comfortable projecting U.S. power on the ground in Syria, and air strikes can only have a limited effect in the war-torn country.

A total withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria would worry Israel most of all. Israel has expressed concern in the past that such a withdrawal could create a power vacuum in Syria for Iran to expand its influence.

The Jerusalem Post reported that statements about possible withdrawal and the goal of containing Iran mentioned by Haley come at a time when the relationship between the Trump administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government are strained. A potential U.S. withdrawal from Syria has prompted “alarm in Jerusalem that Israel’s fight against Iran would be waged alone,” according to the Jerusalem Post.

Even if U.S. troops stay in Syria for a few more months, it seems certain that Trump will keep their mission as short as possible. This would undermine Israel’s leverage in persuading the Russians to keep Iran at bay and will embolden Tehran to expand its presence in Syria.

Netanyahu has also appealed to the British PM Theresa May. According to the Jerusalem Post, he told the British leader that “Iran is the leading source of instability in the region,” and Assad “needs to understand that when he lets Iran build a permanent presence…he is endangering Syria and the entire region.”

Meanwhile, Russia is considering providing S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria, which Israel fears will erode its air dominance over Syria and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz called Iran’s actions in Arab countries “terroristic” in his opening remarks at the Arab League summit in Dhahran April 15.

A communique issued at the conclusion of the summit called for additional international sanctions on Iran and urged Tehran to withdraw "its militias" from Syria and Yemen. "We renew our strong condemnation of terrorist acts carried out by Iran in the Arab region, and we reject its blatant interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries," King Salman said.