Don’t let the lack of any formal Israeli response to US President Donald Trump’s dramatic reversal of policy and decision to remove US troops from northern Syria fool you: Jerusalem is deeply, deeply concerned about this step.
Not because it will suddenly impact Israel’s ability to take action in Syria when it desires to halt Iranian attempts to entrench itself there – though it could make that marginally more difficult – but because it drives home the idea that Israel really can only rely on itself.
Trump’s decision – a reversal of last year’s reversal of an announcement to withdraw US troops from Syria – cannot be seen as an isolated decision. It must also be seen within the context of the Iranian-backed attacks last month on the Saudi oil facilities, and the deafening lack of an American response.
Both these incidents show that the present administration is little different from the previous Obama administration in its unwillingness to stand up and confront where necessary the negative forces in the Middle East – and this is something that has enormous significance for Israel.
What this is driving home to the country’s strategic planners is that while the US under a very friendly administration will support Israel at the United Nations; while it will offer assistance with aid for weapons; and while it will give it moral backing and defend it against international pressure – when it comes to the use of force, Israel must be willing and ready to defend itself, by itself.
Ironically, Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds comes just a month after he mentioned the possibility of signing some kind of a mutual defense pact with Israel.
While many of the country’s strategic thinkers did not take that too seriously, debating whether indeed such a pact would have merit, Trump’s actions – abandoning the Kurds to the “tender mercies” of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as former National Security Council head Eran Lerman put it – will be taken very seriously.
The security pact is words; the withdrawal of the US troops are actions. In this region, decisions are taken based on how various key players act, not what they say.
For instance, not long ago there was a significant school of thought here that argued that Israel need not take any action against the Iranian nuclear threat, because – when push comes to shove – Jerusalem could count on the US to do the work.
US actions in the region by the last two administrations – both Democrat and Republican – have shown that this worldview is not based on reality. There has not been any US action over the last few years to support this theory.
This school of thought based itself on the long-held idea that in the Middle East, there were things that the Americans would simply take care of.
That may have been true once, but not lately. The Saudi and now Kurdish experience shouts: “Maybe yes, maybe no, but Israel cannot rely on this.”
Lerman, now the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), said that no one “in their right mind in the region” today would rely on the Americans, and this is something that could very well push various actors into the waiting arms of the Iranians.
Calling Trump’s step a “moral outrage,” Lerman said that one possible consequence of the move might be to chase the Kurds – in their battle with the Turks – over to the side of the Assad regime and its Iranian backers.
This would have serious consequences for Israel, he said, because it would remove the last barrier in northern Syria preventing a land bridge – a contiguous supply route – running from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon and ports on the Mediterranean Sea.