The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was pleased with the military-to-military relationship with close ally Israel after a visit with his counterpart this week.

Israeli army Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, the chief of General Staff for the Israel Defense Forces, hosted Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford in Tel Aviv and here. The chairman also met with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“This is my third visit here as chairman,” Dunford said during an interview with reporters traveling with him.

Close U.S.-Israel Partnership
Israel is a close U.S. partner, the chairman said, adding that “coming here as a matter of routine is important.”

He noted it was a typical day in the U.S.-Israeli military relationship. At the same time he was meeting with Israeli leaders, American troops were training with the IDF, a U.S. ship was putting into port in Haifa and the deputy commanders from U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. European Command and U.S. Central Command were holding meetings.

“There is always a lot of activity going on in the [U.S.-Israel] relationship,’ the chairman said.

Dunford said he spoke to his Israeli hosts about several issues of mutual concern.

“We spoke today broadly about the region,” he said. “And clearly, the major concern is Iran’s influence in the region — their malign activities in the region, what’s happening with Iran in Iraq and Iran in Syria.”

Dunford said he and his Israeli hosts also spoke about Lebanese Hezbollah, and the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the tri-border area of Israel, Syria and Jordan.

Counter-ISIS Progress

The Israelis are pleased with the progress being made against ISIS, Dunford said. They believe the trend is in the right direction and can look forward to the demise of the group. “Their concern is about the day after ISIS is defeated in Raqqa and the long-term political structure in Syria and the role that Iran would play in Syria and the region,” he said.

Dealing with the Iranian threat network was a big part of the conversation, Dunford said.

“The greatest challenge from Iran is the Iranian threat network,” the chairman noted, which he said includes the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force and the support they provide for Lebanese Hezbollah.

“The big threat to Israel, Dunford added, would be Lebanese Hezbollah having a presence in southern Syria, which “would give Israel two fronts to deal with.

Lebanese Hezbollah now fields a conventional force armed with missiles, rockets, artillery, armored vehicles and tanks, the chairman said.

Situation in Syria

Refugee flows from Syria into Jordan and Turkey are also a concern, Dunford said. Turkey now has about 2.2 million refugees and there are 1.2 million refugees in Jordan, he added, with millions more displaced people inside Syria.

“We talked about that and how quickly we can return to some stability so people can return home,” Dunford said. “There is an argument to be made that an investment in Syria today would be less expensive than the flow of refugees over time.”

U.S. and Israeli officials spoke about the deconfliction areas that came out of the recent meeting among Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Dunford said the United States was an observer at those talks. The United States and Russia, he said, already have a process in place to deconflict areas of operations, but this is done at the operational level.

“The next steps that might be appropriate are geographical deconfliction that would allow us to continue to put pressure on ISIS and other terror groups” and get the political process moving, he said.

The violence must be reduced in order to set the conditions on the ground that is conducive to moving toward a peace process in Syria through talks in Geneva, Switzerland, the chairman said.

The deconfliction zones were proposed by the Russians, the chairman said.

“To be clear, the Russians proposed these deconfliction zones in Astana,” Dunford said. “We now have a proposal from the Russians that Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson is speaking to this week with [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and I would assume it will come up in President Trump’s meeting with Lavrov, as well.”

The Russians would like the United States to be a part of the group of nations “deconflicting” inside Syria, “but no decision has been made,” the general said.

Possible American participation in helping to establish deconflicting zones in Syria is a political question that must be decided by U.S. civilian leaders, the chairman said.

“What we are doing now is prudently talking to military planners, and in our conversations with the Israelis we are asking about the proposal and what it would look like on the ground,” Dunford said. “It is fair to say that the Israelis would want to make sure that their security concerns are addressed.”