Trump's withdrawal astonished U.S. allies and adversaries alike

The decision to withdraw troops from Syria is good news for America’s enemies, but not its allies – including Israel.

A difference of opinion: US President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who resigned over Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria (photo credit: REUTERS)
A difference of opinion: US President Donald Trump and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who resigned over Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The decision in mid-December 2018 by US President Donald Trump to withdraw American troops fully from Syria and partially from Afghanistan astonished US allies and adversaries alike, and dismayed many Republican Congressmen and other supporters of the president.
“Does the US want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing?” Trump tweeted, saying it was his Christmas gift to US troops serving in Syria. “Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight.”
His decision is, in fact, a Christmas gift to US enemies and rivals, above all Russia and Iran, and indirectly China, and a bombshell dropped on Israel and the Sunni Arab world, which have been encouraged by the US to form a steadfast front against the expansionist aspirations of Shi’ite Iran.
No wonder that US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who was surprised by the decision, rushed to resign, leaving the administration without any “responsible adult” to rein in the capricious and unpredictable president with his borderline personality. In addition, the top US envoy leading the global coalition fighting ISIS, Brett McGurk, resigned in protest at Trump’s decision.
Only two weeks earlier, Trump tweeted that the only reason why US troops remained in Syria was “Israel.” In other words, he tried to explain that American soldiers were in Syria to help Israel to repel Iran.
Now he contradicted himself (what’s new?) and justified his controversial decision by declaring that ISIS has been defeated. Indeed, ISIS has lost the war and 99% of the territory it had controlled in 2015 in Syria and Iraq. However the ideology, ideas and spirit of the Islamic State and al-Qaeda live on. Trump’s decision may give them a tail wind to reemerge and regroup.
The importance of the US military presence was not in its size. There are more than 2,000 American troops in Syria. Most of them belong to Special Forces units, whose missions are to train, advise, assist and provide intelligence to the Kurdish militia, which spearheaded the fight against ISIS.
Now, with the withdrawal decision, the Kurds are at the mercy of the invading Turkish army, which sees them as “terrorists.” It was Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, to his own surprise, easily convinced Trump in a phone conversation to pull out of Syria.
Stabbed in the back and betrayed (once again) by the US, the Kurds will now dive for their own safety by asking to be protected by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. They will stop spilling their blood as cannon fodder for the US in the war against ISIS.
Even more importantly, surely for Israel, the US presence in Syria has to be measured not by the relatively small size of its contingent, not by quantity, but by its symbolic quality. The American soldiers have served as a “wire trip.” By their sheer presence, they deter Russia, Syria, Turkey and Iran from trying to encroach anywhere near their bases, knowing that if American soldiers were killed, the US would beef up its presence and retaliate. Thus they effectively prevented Iran, Turkey and Assad from expanding their control.
The US troops are stationed in two areas. The majority of them are in the northeast of Syria in the Kurdish-controlled enclave along the Turkish border. About 10% of them – 250 or so troops – have a garrison in Al-Tanf. This base is of strategic importance especially to Israel and Jordan.
Al-Tanf, in southeast Syria, is one of its border crossings with Iraq, relatively not far from the Jordanian border and about 270 kilometers from Israel’s Golan Heights.
When the US evacuates Al-Tanf, the shortest land corridor from Tehran to Damascus will be opened for Iran to accomplish its aspirations to reach Lebanon via land and gain access to the Mediterranean.
Since Trump came to the White House two years ago, Israeli leaders and security officials laboriously urged the administration to stay in Syria. In every meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former defense minister Avigdor Liberman, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen urged their American counterparts to stay in Syria. They argued that only a US presence – albeit small and symbolic – serves as a bulwark against Iran and Russia and will eventually bring about the withdrawal of all foreign forces, Iran, its Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah included.
For two years, it seemed that the Israeli arguments were persuasive and convinced  Trump. Israel was assisted in its efforts by the most senior administration officials, i.e., Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security advisers Harold McMaster and his successor, John Bolton. Trump rejected their advice.
The challenges that will face Israel from now on are not easy. No doubt Israel will continue to enjoy the diplomatic backing of the US and it is still the strongest military power in the region and can defend itself and its interests. But without a US presence in Syria, it will be much more difficult to deal with the crisis.
Despite suffering severe blows by Israel Air Force strikes against its bases, warehouses and shipments of precise missiles to Hezbollah, Iran is now determined more than ever to stay in Syria. It will try once again to establish a foothold near the Israeli border on the Golan Heights and threaten Israel with a second front, in addition to its shared post with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Even before the Trump announcement, Israel’s freedom of action in Syria was limited by Russia. This was a result of the Kremlin’s fury over the downing last September of a Russian spy plane by a Syrian missile during an Israeli raid on Iranian positions. Russia didn’t accept Israeli explanations and decided to limit the free hand it had given the Israeli Air Force to operate in Syrian air space. Now, it seems that Israel’s capability to maneuver there will be even narrower.
After Trump’s decision, some Israeli pundits, filled with unrestrained hatred of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed malicious joy. No doubt, the end result is that Israel failed in its policy. But it’s not Netanyahu’s fault. He certainly can be blamed for siding with the Republicans, wholeheartedly supporting Trump, abandoning the Democrats and alienating most of American Jewry, which is 70% in favor of the Democratic Party. By doing so he endangered Israel’s future and exposed it to repercussions when Trump is gone and the Democrats return to power. But on the Syrian front, he did everything in his power to convince Trump not to pull out of Syria.
The US decision to withdraw troops from Syria also carries a hidden ramification regarding Israel’s image. For years Israel has diplomatically benefited from the perception – regardless of its proximity to truth – that it has unproportional influence over US politics – Congress and the White House. Turkey asked Israel to help it in preventing Congressional resolutions commemorating its genocide against Armenians in World War I. Azerbaijan and other Asian and African dictatorial regimes asked Israel to intervene on their behalf, when they faced bashing by Washington for their abuses of human rights. When US administrations contemplated cutting defense aid to Jordan and Egypt, Israel advocated and lobbied against it. Now cracks may appear in the perception of Israel as an omnipotent force in American politics.
The consequences of Trump’s decision vibrates far beyond Israel. It sends a worrisome message to US allies in the region – Jordan, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, whose relations with Washington were already strained after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The message is loud and clear: the US can’t be trusted.
Many wonder now what the US’s next step will be. Will it also order the withdrawal of its 5,200-strong force in Iraq? Unlike in Syria, American troops were invited by the Baghdad government. They serve in various capacities in training the Iraqi army. Vociferous calls have already been sounded in Iraq urging the US to leave.
If this happens, it would mean that the US doesn’t care whether the Middle East becomes Russian turf. Such a decision may assure Trump’s hardheaded supporters that there is logic to his madness and that he is loyal to his elections promises of “America First,” to “bring home our boys” and not to be the “policeman of the world.”
Surely it will also prove that behind his zigzags there is a grain of ideology: the return of America to its traditional tendencies of isolationism going back to the 20th century during the period between the two World Wars and even further back to the 19th century.
Yet such a move would be very bad for the free Western world and democracy. International relations, like nature, abhors a vacuum. With America’s self-imposed abandonment of its global assets and posture, the void will soon be filled with the ambitious emergence of China and Russia.
Yossi Melman blogs at and tweets at yossi_melman