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US PRESIDENT Donald Trump discusses Syria and Iraq in March. .(Photo by: REUTERS)
Can Israel trust the U.S. after Syria withdrawal?
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
10/07/2019
An erratic Washington, even one that appears more pro-Israel than previous administration, leaves more questions than answers. Israel’s enemies exploit that kind of uncertainty.
The US surprise decision to announce that it would withdraw from an area along the Syrian border and enable a Turkish military operation into northern Syria raises many questions about long-term US policy in the Middle East. It is also concerning to Jerusalem because both Iran, an enemy of Israel, and Turkey, which excoriates Israel regularly at international forums, appear to gain as the US retreats.


The US decision to open the door for a Turkish invasion of eastern Syria is seen as a betrayal among US partners on the ground in Syria, and particularly among many Kurds. Across the region it is also seen as the US, once again, letting down allies. This has been a refrain from Iraq to Egypt to the Gulf. US President Donald Trump said that although the Kurds fought alongside the US, eastern Syria was now the for “Turkey, Europe, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Russia” to deal with. Embroiled in an impeachment crisis, the US President says others must deal with the ISIS detainees. He has made similar comments before in the spring of 2018 and December 2018 when he vowed to leave Syria. This has repercussions for Israel.

US policy in the Middle East over the last decades has not always been consistent. One thing that has been consistent is support for Israel. That means that Israel and the US enjoy a unique partnership that works on numerous levels, including close people-to-people relationships, cultural ties, and military and intelligence ties. However, both Israel and the US have unique ways of seeing the wider Middle East. In the past Israeli allies have tended to be US allies as well. During the period of the Cold War in the 1960s, for instance, Israel has relations with Iran and Turkey, while the Soviets sank investment into Syria and Egypt.

Over time the changing Israeli relationship with Egypt was a product also of a decision by Egypt to re-orient itself towards the United States in the 1970s. Israel’s peace treaties have been supported by the US as well as peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Today Iran, whose Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader recently claimed the destruction of Israel will come in the next war, is also an adversary  of the US. It is clear that rhetoric from groups such as the Iranian-allied Houthis in Yemen or Hezbollah, all are opposed to the US and Israel. The Houthis say “death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews,” in their official slogan. This is the Iranian regime model. It is a common view among pro-Iranian militias in Iraq as well.

A powerful US is a key to Israeli security. A Washington that is perceived as weak and untrustworthy in the region will be tested by adversaries and enemies of Israel and America. It is in that context that the US decision to withdraw from parts of Syria takes place. Washington began its campaign in eastern Syria to defeat ISIS.

Under the Obama administration the US decided against air strikes on the Assad regime in 2013 in favor of fighting ISIS as a priority and working on a deal with Iran. Israel was concerned about the Iran deal empowering Iran in other realms, such as transferring precision guidance to Hezbollah via Syria. ISIS, although it controlled a small area near the Golan, rarely threaten Israel.

Jerusalem’s priority as ISIS was defeated was that Iran should not step into the power vacuum. As such Israel was pleased to see forces working with the US take over areas from ISIS. This included the Syrian Democratic Forces which liberated Raqqa in 2017 and defeated ISIS near the Euphrates in March 2019.

Former US National Security Advisor John Bolton appeared to support keeping the US in Syria until Iranian forces left. In Jerusalem in August 2018 he said that the US was concerned about Iranian militias in Syria. At a summit with Russia, Israel and the US in June 2019 he also hinted that somehow Israel and the US could pressure Russia to get Iran out of Syria. That seems like a distant moment now on October 7, 2019 when the US has given Ankara the green light in northern Syria.

Turkey today is working closely with the Russians. It has purchased the S-400 system, has wide-ranging energy deals, even as Turkey is expanding its reach in the Mediterranean, and works closely with Moscow and Tehran on Syria issues via the Astana peace process. In some circles Turkey was seen as a possible ally against Iran for the US because Turkey backed Syrian rebel groups opposing Assad. But over the last years Ankara has pivoted with those groups, turning them into a Turkish-backed force dependent on Turkey and seeking to use them to fight the SDF.

The concept in Turkey now appears to be to take over part of northern Syria, settle up to 1 million mostly Arab refugees along the border and then use it as leverage with the Syrian regime. Turkey says it respects Syria’s territorial integrity. It’s clear that for Ankara the main enemy is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey claims is linked to the SDF. There is no evidence Turkey and Iran oppose eachother. Instead Turkish and Iranian leaders regularly meet and discuss policy. They appear willing to partition Syria into  spheres of influence with Russia managing both sides. Iran, Turkey and Russia all oppose US policy in Syria.

This means that as the US reduces its presence the SDF will be isolated. Iran is already chomping at the bit to get more of Syria. It wants to expand its use of Iraqi Shi’ite militias in Syria via the newly opened Al-Qaim-Albukamal crossing at the Syria-Iraq border. This border area is the site of an alleged Iranian base that his been hit by airstrikes. Iraq’s Prime Minister has blamed Israel for  airstrikes in Iraq targeting Iranian-backed militias.

Amid the current protests in Iraq it  appears those militias have exploited the chaos to suppress protesters and gain more power. Ayatollah Khamenei says that Iran and Iraq  are united while Iran calls for protesters to show restraint. The message is clear from Tehran: Iran will not let Iraq fall to any critics or protesters, Iraq is the “near abroad” for Tehran and a key part of its alliance system.


The reduction in US influence in eastern Syria inevitably means the US will retire to the Iraqi border, perhaps preserving some areas in southeast Syria, including the Tanf base, and that the US will shift forces over to its bases in Iraq. Trump said in December 2018 that the US could “watch” over Iran from Iraq as part of its “maximum pressure” campaign. But there is evidence it is Iran that will now put maximum pressure on the US to leave Iraq.

The US is rapidly losing friends in the region. The Kurdistan Regional Government, isolated, is also hedging its bets after being outraged by the US not standing by its clashes with Baghdad over Kirkuk in October 2017. So the KRG works with Turkey and must balance discussions with Iran. The US is not seen as reliable across Iraq.

In Jordan, the US recently completed operation Eager Lion with 8,000 participants from 30 countries. As US Central Command loses its SDF partners due to  Trump’s policies, it can look to Jordan where the US still has influence. For Israel this reduction in US influence in Iraq and Syria now means that the enemy is closer to the gates. IRGC Quds  Force commander Qassem Soleimani  said in an interview published October 1 that he viewed the US presence in Iraq in 2006 as an obstacle to help Hezbollah fight Israel.

The message is that today there is a road to the sea or land-bridge connecting Tehran to the Golan and Lebanon and that means the obstacle is no longer there as the US reduces its role. This is what is called a domino affect. The US may appear to only be leaving a few  border posts in Tel Abyad near the Turkish border. But the affect is felt all the way to the Gulf and Riyadh and down to Amman and Cairo. It’s a message.

In the Gulf the feeling is already clear. Saudi Arabia cannot confront Iran after the September 14 attack on Abqaiq and its oil facilities. The UAE is seeking to end the Yemen conflict. Riyadh appears bogged down in Yemen with the forces it supports being dealt a blow by the Iranian-backed Houthis. Saudi’s image has been harmed by the murder of former insider Jama Khashoggi in Istanbul last year.

This then is the situation in the region. The US wants to end the Afghan war, empowering Iran there as well. It wants to leave Syria. It may be asked to leave parts of Iraq by Iranian-backed parties in parliament. Turkey, once more close to Israel, is now one of the most vocal opponents of Israel in the region and is empowered by the US move. It and its ally Qatar have worked with Hamas. Iran works with Hamas. Iran works with Turkey on Syria. On Iran’s grand chessboard for its long-term strategy in the region, it sees another win.

The US decision to leave eastern Syria appears abrupt, not informing European allies or the SDF, or preparing the ground. It shows that the US can make policy by tweet, as Trump has in the past. What does this mean for Jerusalem? It means that Washington’s “deal of the century” and other plans are not clear. An erratic Washington, even one that appears more pro-Israel than previous administration, leaves more questions than answers. Israel’s enemies exploit that kind of uncertainty. There is a feeling that while the US supports Israel’s actions in the region, Israel is also alone and not being consulted on regional strategy.

In the short term the plans by Ankara to move into eastern Syria, bit-by-bit, are clear. But the long term question is how Iran and Israel enemies may benefit. Russia will watch closely what is happening because its ally the Syrian regime doesn’t want the US to manage a Turkish takeover of eastern Syria.

Russia previously signed off on Turkey using the airspace over Afrin for a campaign there. But Russia is concerned about instability in Raqqa and other areas where there was previously ISIS presence. If the SDF fights Turkey there will be a power vacuum. Will Iran fill the vacuum? If it does it gives it more real estate in Syria to transfer weapons to Hezbollah and allies. Whoever fills that vacuum has leverage over the future of Syria and Iraq and security throughout the region. Israel is concerned and will watch closely.

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