WASHINGTON – The implosion of US President Donald Trump’s Syria policy team has rattled Middle Eastern powers already bracing for a norm-shifting US peace plan for Israelis and Palestinians.
Trump’s decision on Thursday to retreat from the Syrian battlefield – without consulting his cabinet, top advisers, or US allies – has prompted regional leaders and experts to question whether the president has the diplomatic wherewithal to orchestrate a serious peace initiative.
One Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post that Trump’s Syria moves had “weakened” the president’s credibility ahead of the roll-out of his peace plan, which officials hope to release before the spring.
And others warn the troop withdrawal will singularly focus Israeli leaders on security fears in the North, dominating their discussions with US officials and undermining their sense of stability entering talks with Ramallah.
Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, and his top counter-ISIS official, Brett McGurk, resigned in protest last week over the president’s Syria policy, his treatment of longstanding allies and his perceived acquiescence to international strongmen.
“One of the key elements of the traditional American role in the peace process has been to reduce both the political and security challenges for the parties so they can take calculated risks on peacemaking,” Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Post. “At its core, this approach is built on trust and credibility that America will be there for the risk-takers when the going gets tough. Sadly, recent events have eviscerated that idea.”
“Quite apart from their own self-inflicted wounds, there is zero confidence among Palestinians in the administration’s commitment to fair and balanced peacemaking,” Satloff continued. “Even among Israelis, who have cheered Trump on the embassy move and the stalwart support for Israel at the UN, there is a growing sense that – when it comes to practical security matters, as opposed to political symbolism – Israel is on its own, a sense that this week’s decision on Syria only reinforced.”
Israeli officials have spoken out in unison against Trump’s decision – and where there is disagreement, it is over just how damaging the withdrawal will be for the Jewish state. Some military leaders note the relatively small number of US troops that were sent to Syria in the first place, while others point to a larger concern – that Trump was told of the Iranian threat on Israel’s border by his closest political allies and proceeded anyway.
Indeed, Trump hinted at this consideration in an off-hand comment last month, acknowledging the concern.
“Now, are we going to stay in that part of the world? One reason to is Israel,” he said in an interview.
Martin Indyk, who once served as US envoy to the Middle East peace process and now is at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Post that it is “fanciful” to try and disconnect strategic developments in the region from Israeli-Palestinian talks.
“He has already done immense damage to America’s role as peacemaker between the Israelis and Palestinians. Now he has abandoned the repeatedly articulated goal of ending Iran’s presence in Syria, thereby abandoning Israel along with the Syrian Kurds, the Syrian opposition army, and our other allies in the fight against ISIS there,” Indyk said. “Now Trump sends an unmistakable signal to friends and foes alike in the region that the United States is not reliable, that its key spokesmen do not speak for the president, and that the United States is turning its back on the region to the benefit of Russia, Turkey and Iran.”
“That has a profound impact on America’s credibility in the region and therefore undermines our ability to influence the regional leaders,” Indyk added. “In those circumstances, how could Trump possibly convince them to support his peace plan, especially when he has already all but guaranteed that the Palestinians will reject it? Why should they take any risks, let alone make life and death decisions, based on what a volcanically unstable and unreliable American leader promises to do?”
Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the US, said in an interview that the US should now focus on a “series of understandings and commitments” about Israel’s increasingly challenging security environment bordering Lebanon and in the Golan Heights. Officials may take advantage of the perception that Trump has slighted Israel over Syria to resurface discussion over US recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights. And they may also use events in Syria to request further delays in publication of the peace plan, citing security priorities.
But few in Israel were itching for the release of Trump’s peace plan before Trump’s Syria announcement.
White House officials declined to comment on this report.
Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.