The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Israel will need to increase the intensity of its operations against the Iranians. US withdrawal from the arena is a good opportunity for Israel to update its strategy in Syria.

The decision by President Trump to withdraw the several thousand US soldiers deployed in Syria, which together with the Kurds fought against the remnants of ISIS in northeastern Syria, is significant in several ways. It is worthwhile viewing this development in broad perspective, beyond Israel’s military view of the situation.

First of all, the withdrawal is an expression of an American perspective shared by both political parties, which can be summarized as follows: The US needs to reduce its overseas military involvements. In other words, US soldiers are to be withdrawn from every location where there is no major threat to American interests. President Obama was the first to implement this policy and the current president is continuing it. They were both influenced by prevailing opinion among Americans, which is tired of bearing the global burden of the last 100 years. This stems from the fact that the US has almost achieved energy independence and therefore the Middle East has become much less important to its economy. And also from the fact that America wants to invest more domestically, where both society and the economy are suffering.

There is deep disagreement between Republicans and Democratics as to the reasons for domestic crisis, but both Obama and Trump, like most American citizens, believe that American blood should not be spilt in foreign wars and that attentions should shift to domestic endeavors. This feeling became much stronger as a result of the casualties and the economic cost of two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, which made little contribution to America’s future and which were essentially failed ventures that have reverberated powerfully in modern American history.

The US withdrawal is historically significant. The trend toward isolationism will likely persist into future administrations. US allies will have to learn to get along on their own, to create regional alliances and to operate jointly, without American involvement. US forces will be concentrated in regions where the US has clear and direct interests, and in the near future this apparently will be in the South China Sea and its environs – where a confrontation with China is developing.

What this means is that in facing its enemies in the Middle East, Israel will have to fall back on the principle it adopted when it declared its independence: “to protect itself – by itself.” No Israeli leader should be under any illusions. Israel must build-up its power to meet this challenge, both economically and militarily; this will be the most important task of all future governments in Israel.

At the same time, Israel must maintain its special relationship with the US. Israel will continue to need US economic assistance to acquire US arms and to utilize American technology whenever this provides maximal advantage on the battlefield. Finally, Israel still needs American backing in the international arena, where Israel is unable to deal with the united front of its enemies and rivals, as the only Jewish state facing 57 Moslem countries ones.

But again, Israel must internalize and operate on the basis of the most important assumption that has always been the foundation of Israel’s defense doctrine: that Israel will defend itself. This is the country’s raison d’être as well as the outcome of global realities.

With respect to confronting Iran in Syria, a distinction should be made between two domains. With respect to battles against Iran, there will be no change after the withdrawal of American forces, for the simple reason that they have not taken part in these battles. The US did not even once act against the Iranian war machine that is emerging in Syria. All US forces and efforts were invested in the elimination of ISIS. This decision was not influenced by the considerations of the military commanders; neither those in the Pentagon, nor those in the field. This was a decision of Congress which limited the mandate of the US military presence in Syria to fighting the Sunni terror organization, ISIS. Therefore, there will be no change for the worse on this front.

In contrast, the withdrawal of American forces will immediately open-up new maneuvering possibilities for the Iranians, which were previously denied to Iran due to the presence of the important American base in the region on the main transportation route connecting Iraq and Syria, close to the Jordanian border.

The Iranian dream of a land corridor from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean which will serve their logistic needs will quickly be realized after the American withdrawal. Such a move will make it much easier for them to transport equipment and forces by land, and therein lies its importance both to Hezbollah and with regard to building a military infrastructure for the Iranian war machine in Syria. From this point of view, the Iranian sense of satisfaction is completely justified. They have just received a gift from the US President. There is no doubt that this will pose a greater challenge to Israel.

Another issue is US credibility. Alas, the US president is following the path of his predecessor, who explained that “credibility” has no importance. In my opinion, both Obama and Trump are mistaken. A superpower without credibility loses part of its capabilities. The US, which is abandoning the Kurds to their fate and exposing them to the revenge of the Turks, the Syrians and perhaps even the Iranians, will be perceived in the region as having lost credibility. The US will be viewed as abandoning its allies, and therefore in future potential allies will think twice about relying on and partnering with the US.

In my opinion, it will soon be evident in more than a few countries that they feel stabbed in the back by the US. The first to feel this backlash will be Jordan, which is also the closest to the frontlines and will now be directly facing the Iranians.

I would not be surprised if the resignation of Secretary of Defense Mattis is in fact connected to this aspect of the President’s decision, since it is harder for military officers to accept betrayal of an ally than it is for politicians. It is a matter of “honor” and “giving one’s word” – two of the most important concepts for Americans in uniform and for anyone who has been nurtured in the military system.

The biggest winners from the American decision are Turkey, Iran and Russia. Russia remains the only superpower in the region. This is both a burden but also an opportunity for Russia to advance its interests in the region. Turkey will gain a free hand to operate against their hated enemy, the Kurds, which until now had US backing thanks to their joint military operations. Erdogan has in the past known how to exploit US weakness, not only against the Kurds.

It will be also no surprise if in parallel to eliminating the last vestiges of Kurdish autonomy and independence, there is an improvement in relations between the dictator in Ankara and the current US president. Congress will not be happy about this, but the President apparently has decided to reconcile with Erdogan, who is responsible for a not insignificant number of deaths since coming into power.

Finally, the Iranians are seeing their dream of a land corridor take shape, thanks to the US President who has given them the keys to the corridor, free of charge.

From Israel’s point of view, there are two possible benefits arising from the President’s decision. Once the US has left the region, there will be one less player that Israel must consider when planning its operations in Syria. In general, an equation with fewer variables is easier to understand and deal with. Without the Americans, whose interests had to be considered in every operation, the decision-making process in Israel will be simplified. And the US will no longer constrain Israel’s operations. The US withdrawal gives Israel almost complete freedom of action.

The withdrawal of the US leaves Israel as the strongest and most stable country in the region and the only serious player with which the main Arab countries can cooperate in the confrontation with Iran and ISIS. The extent to which Israel’s position is strengthened as a result of the vacuum left by the Americans is difficult to assess, but the potential is significant.

In conclusion, the President is doing what he promised to do and there is no point in complaining about it. The immediate price will be paid by the Kurds, who are now without protection and will have to face their bitter fate. There will be greater responsibility placed on Russia; and Turkey, Iran and Russia will attempt to fill the vacuum.

Israel remains determined to contain the Iranians. In this context, there has been no change except for the logistic (and perhaps psychological) benefits for Iran, which will be able to realize its dream of a land corridor. Israel will now have the added challenge of disrupting that dream. Israel must prepare itself accordingly. It will need to increase the intensity of its operations against the Iranians in Syria. In fact, US withdrawal from the arena is a good opportunity for Israel to update its strategy in Syria.

Note: This paper was written before the Dec. 25 strikes in Syria attributed to Israel.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

photo: Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve/Spc. Arnada Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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