by Yoni Hersch, Ariel Kahana, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, currently in Israel, to discuss keeping hundreds of American troops at strategic Al-Tanf base in Syria
National Security Adviser John Bolton
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his team of advisers were expected to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump's National Security Adviser John Bolton on Sunday evening in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu will present Bolton, who is on a four-day trip to Israel and Turkey, with the results and ramifications of Israel's operation to neutralize Hezbollah's cross-border tunnels.
The two will also discuss the fight against Iran and their countries' respective new footing ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.
A senior U.S. official in Bolton's team told NBC News over the weekend that despite Trump's declaration that the withdrawal would be total, an American contingent could stay behind in Syria in the months following the pullout. The official also said the U.S. did not have a specific timetable for the planned withdrawal, despite reports last week that it would take place over a period of four months. Similar comments were also made by U.S. State Department officials, who said the pullout would be implemented in a manner that we and our partners "continue the pressure on ISIS and don't leave behind a vacuum for the terrorists."
Regardless of a timeline for the removal of U.S. forces, the official in Bolton's delegation added that some of the forces leaving Syria would be sent to Iraq. As for the forces that will perhaps stay behind, it's highly likely those will include the several hundred troops stationed at Al-Tanf, located on the strategic highway connecting Tehran with Baghdad and Damascus.
Bolton is expected to raise this possibility during his meetings in Israel. The senior American official said the U.S. was seeking input from leaders in Israel and Jordan before taking its next steps, including their views on the importance of the Al-Tanf base. According to NBC, keeping troops at Al-Tanf could alleviate Israeli concerns, and send a stern message to Iran.
In any case, Israel hopes to make the best of the planned U.S. withdrawal, which a senior Israeli official described as "turning lemons into lemonade."
As a reminder, Netanyahu's meeting in Brazil last week with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – to discuss the American troop withdrawal – was reportedly very successful. A senior Israeli official said Pompeo had agreed to eight of the nine requests Netanyahu made in their meeting. He declined, however, to comment on the nature of the requests and refused to provide information as to which request was declined by the secretary of state.
Netanyahu also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday night. The two leaders discussed the situation in Syria and the airstrike attributed to Israel almost two weeks ago. According to the Prime Minister's Office, Netanyahu and Putin "agreed on the continuation of security coordination between their armies, and the prime minister said Israel was determined to continue its efforts to prevent Iran from establishing a military foothold in Syria."
Bolton, for his part, warned the Syrian government on Saturday that it should not see the impending U.S. military withdrawal as an invitation to use chemical weapons.
"There is absolutely no change in the U.S. position against the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime and absolutely no change in our position that any use of chemical weapons would be met by a very strong response, as we've done twice before," Bolton told reporters on his plane shortly before landing in Tel Aviv.
"So the regime, the Assad regime, should be under no illusions on that question," said Bolton.
He said he was not suggesting Syria appeared ready to use chemical weapons.
"As we elaborate how the [U.S. troop] withdrawal is going to occur and the circumstances, we don't want the Assad regime to see what we do as representing any diminution in our opposition to the use of weapons of mass destruction," he said.
If chemical weapons were to be used, "a lot of options would be on the table ... if they don't heed the lessons of those two strikes the next one will be more telling," Bolton said.
Bolton also will focus on Syria and "how the U.S. will work with allies and partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, and counter Iranian malign behavior in the region," according to National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis, Fox News reported over the weekend.
Pompeo will also be in the Middle East this week and will stop in eight countries.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to preview his trip, said the secretary's aim was to counter "false narratives" that the U.S. is abandoning the Middle East and to make the point that Iran continues to be a threat. "We are not going anywhere," the official said, Fox News reported over the weekend.
Pompeo also plans stops in Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. The U.S. hopes each country will play a significant role in a planned regional strategic partnership being called an "Arab NATO."
Bolton was expected to be joined in Turkey by veteran diplomat Jim Jeffrey and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. They are expected to pressure Turkish officials not to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces in Syria.
Turkey considers the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG, a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
Pompeo told Newsmax Thursday that "ensuring that the Turks don't slaughter the Kurds" was part "of the American mission set," a comment that Turkey said showed a lack of information about the situation.
Ibrahim Hamidi, a journalist who covers Syrian affairs for the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, wrote in a report published Saturday that the top commander of the YPG, Sipan Hemo, secretly visited Damascus and Moscow where he offered "a secret deal" that would include handing over border points to the Syrian government in return for accepting a Kurdish local administration with Russia as a guarantor.
Hamidi added that the offer aims to reach "understandings to fill the gap following the American withdrawal and to cut the road for Turkish intervention."
The talks with Russia and new overtures towards Damascus underline a recalibration of Kurdish strategy since Trump announced his decision to withdraw U.S. forces.
Analysts believe Assad and the YPG could eventually work together against Turkey-backed rebels in northwestern Syria.
Yoni Hersch, Ariel Kahana, News Agencies and Israel Hayom Staff
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