Why Trump’s withdrawal from Syria has Israel on edge

Why We Wrote This

President Donald Trump has billed himself as a staunch friend of Israel, but the Syrian withdrawal has refocused Israelis on their primary desire – for the U.S. to remain active in the region.

Pavel Golovkin/Reuters
Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran, on right, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, middle, and Vladimir Putin of Russia gathered at a news conference during their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, Sept. 16, 2019. Their countries all were strengthened by the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria.

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For decades, Israel’s foreign policy has rested almost exclusively on the presumption of ironclad ties with the United States. And in the past two years, Israelis had grown accustomed to the image of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu as partners in a very public lovefest.

But the U.S. president’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria has left Israel reeling from the implications – a strengthened Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Russia – all of which could put it in increased danger.

With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expected in Israel on Friday to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, analysts say a whiff of Israeli panic awaits: Could a staunch U.S. ally like Israel one day also be abandoned at a crucial moment like Syria’s Kurds?

Mr. Trump’s historic decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights “don’t really make a difference,” says Jonathan Rynhold, a professor at Bar-Ilan University. “America’s most important role for Israel is providing a balance of power [in the region] that is favorable to Israel … and this move is a terrible message for Israel.”

“America First” is not exactly a subtle slogan, and Israeli officials were well aware of President Donald Trump’s isolationist streak.

But for decades Israel’s foreign policy has rested almost exclusively on the presumption of ironclad ties with the United States. And under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose personal political fortunes also are intertwined with the strength of those ties, that has meant his trusting relationship with Mr. Trump.

The U.S. president’s hasty decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria has consequently left Israel reeling from the implications – all of which could put it in increased danger.

Underlying it all is the fear and even, as some analysts suggest, a whiff of panic: Could a staunch U.S. ally like Israel one day also be abandoned at a crucial moment like Syria’s Kurds, America’s best weapon in the fight against the Islamic State?

In Jerusalem that means a scramble to rethink and prepare for what might unfold next in the Middle East now that America’s decades-long forceful presence in the region is waning.

This is the fast-shifting Israeli mindset that awaits Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is expected to touch down in Israel Friday and meet Mr. Netanyahu to discuss regional security matters, chief among them Iran.

The challenge he faces is evident in two recent op-ed headlines in the mainstream, mass-circulation Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot: “The Next Betrayal” and “A knife in our back.”

In the same publication, Shimrit Meir, the founding editor of Al-Masdar, an Israeli news website in Arabic, writes, “It is time for the most loyal Trump supporters in the region and beyond to come to terms with the fact the U.S. can no longer be relied on as it continues to spin out of control.”

Enemies strengthened

In the past two years Israelis had grown accustomed to the image of President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu as partners in a very public lovefest, so the sting of a less engaged America feels especially sharp, despite the warning signs.

“Netanyahu’s reliance on him, this was always going to be a problem. Trump gives Israel, gives Netanyahu, things to help him politically, and they are very symbolic, like Jerusalem and the Golan Heights,” says Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University who researches American-Israeli relations.

But, he adds, Mr. Trump’s historic decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan “don’t really make a difference…. America’s most important role for Israel is providing a balance of power that is favorable to Israel … and this move is a terrible message for Israel.”

“We are not going to get massacred or removed from the country,” he says. “But it means the enemies of Israel and the enemies of moderate powers in the region will get stronger.”

The list of potential consequences is indeed extensive, and in the case of the weakening of the Kurds, it has already been seen dramatically on the ground. Hundreds of Kurds have been killed in Turkish airstrikes, thousands more have fled, and in the wake of that chaos, unknown numbers of ISIS prisoners previously being guarded by the Kurds are now free again. Analysts say ISIS forces will now be able to rebuild and likely resume their terror campaign.


Oded Balilty/AP/File
A Likud election campaign billboard shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and President Donald Trump in Jerusalem, Feb. 4, 2019. Hebrew on the billboard reads: "Netanyahu. A different league."

Domino effect

The Kurds, desperate for protection, have now entered into a pact with the Syrian government, strengthening its hand as it tries to regain control of territory lost during the civil war. This is more bad news for Israel because Russia, Syria’s patron and notoriously fickle in its dealings with Israel, is left as the main superpower in the region.

Continuing the domino effect, Russia has long been turning a blind eye to Iran’s efforts to gain ground in Syria. With the U.S. increasingly out of the picture, there is little to deter Iran from establishing what has been called a “land bridge” to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria that would facilitate its movement of soldiers and missiles. The scenario is one of Israel’s long-standing fears.

“It is a horrid diplomatic disaster, the price of which could be Iranian forces on the Golan Heights and an ‘Axis of Evil’ closing on Israel from the north,” Ofer Shelah, a lawmaker from the centrist Blue and White party told Israeli reporters. “And our only way of dealing with it would be by force.”

Among the other potential “winners” in this still evolving new reality is Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a long-time thorn in Israel’s side who has supported Gaza’s militant Islamist rulers Hamas.

The suffering of the Kurds also feels unusually personal for Israel because of the two people’s history of tight political and reportedly even military relations. And Israelis see in the Kurds a version of themselves before they achieved statehood: a scrappy people fighting for independence.

A group of Israeli army reservists has been circulating an online petition imploring Israeli officials to help the Kurds during this crisis.

Iran’s precision missiles

The potential emboldening of Iran, Israel’s No. 1 enemy, is the most severe unintended consequence of Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

Israel has long been warning that Iran would soon pose a nuclear threat that would be a danger not just to Israel but the region and the world. And for years it has been busy putting out fires – and fighting the occasional war – with Iranian allies Hezbollah in the north, on its border with Lebanon, and Hamas, in the south.

Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, says Mr. Netanyahu’s policies “are crashing down in all areas as they are all predicated on the assumption of having a strong friend in the White House and the U.S. not retrenching” in the Middle East.

Once Iran makes headway on its “land bridge” plans, he says, the real challenge will be heading off the threat of the precision missiles it might be able to plant in closer proximity to Israel, missiles that would threaten Israeli energy installations and by extension, its economy. If Iran acquires more land as a de-facto “big base for missiles, it makes it really hard to find and destroy everything,” he says.

Yoram Schweitzer, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a former counter-terrorism adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office, says it’s important not to overly dramatize the new security challenges Israel faces, most of which he sees as evolving slowly.

“Not in any sense is Israel relying on American active defense of it, but the fact that the position of America has weakened vis-a-vis Iran, Israel’s main rival, impacts on Israel’s deterrent position,” he says. “We need to be sober about what we are facing and be on alert all the time.”

Iran’s recent attacks on Saudi Arabian targets have meanwhile also raised concern among Israeli officials.

Haim Tomer, a former chief of intelligence and operations in the Mossad, echoed others’ comments when he wrote in Haaretz, “In terms of deterrence, Iran’s operation in Saudi Arabia demonstrated its ability to strike accurately while obscuring its responsibility. That means it is capable of carrying out a similar operation against Israel.” 

Mr. Tomer also wrote that Mr. Trump’s current approach to the Middle East “presents a complex, almost unprecedented security dilemma for Israel right during the period of transition government.”

No criticism from Netanyahu

Mr. Netanyahu ran his last two campaigns based in large part on his friendship with Mr. Trump – billboards of the two men smiling and shaking hands were plastered across the country – but has failed since the last election to form a governing coalition. He has not said anything directly critical of the U.S. president in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal.

Instead he reiterated Israel founding defense ethos: “Israel will protect itself, on its own, against any threat.”

However Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Mr. Netanyahu, told Ynet TV, “I think the U.S. isolationist approach is problematic for the entire world, and for our region as well.”

And looking forward, Yair Golan, a retired general and lawmaker with the left-wing Democratic Alliance party, says Israel will still need powerful allies and will need to shift course.

“Israel will need a more nuanced, complex foreign policy,” he says, one where coordination is sought across a wider range of sources, from increased cooperation with moderate Sunni countries, to Russia, and more locally with Greece and Cyprus. “There may be more disappointments taking this road, but we don’t determine U.S. policy, and Israel has to deal with a new reality.”

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