The possibility that Iran and Turkey will be emboldened by the American decision, is worrisome. The main counter to that will be robust deterrence from Israel, whose maintenance may increase the likeliness of escalation in Syria and Lebanon, and even more resort to the restraining hand of Russia.
None of the newest developments in the US affecting the Middle East – including President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, the intended drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, and the resignation of Defense Secretary Mattis – are a surprise.
The President has been very clear and open about his conviction that, as he said in an interview on August 20, “We never should have been in the Middle East. It was the single greatest mistake in the history of our country” and that U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Syria (and Afghanistan) as soon as possible.
This message has been somewhat obscured in recent months, as many, including in Israel, translated Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA with Iran into willingness to invest American power in the wider goal of containing and rolling back Iranian influence in the region. This interpretation was given wings by the appointment of two Iran hawks to influential national security positions in April: Mike Pompeo to Secretary of State, and John Bolton as National Security Advisor. In the past four months, it seemed that the “Iranian camp” in the administration had succeeded in shifting the focus of U.S. policy, including military policy, in Syria from the threat of ISIS to that of Iran. The presence of over 2000 U.S. troops in Syria, the strategic rationale of which was always unclear (their presence was the result of a series of operational and tactical decisions taken to buttress the Kurds as the only effective pro-Western indigenous force fighting ISIS), was given a new goal. U.S. forces in a-Tanf, on the Syrian-Iraqi border, were portrayed as a bulwark and trip-wire against the creation of a ground corridor from Iran via Iraq to Syria (and hence to Lebanon), and the transfer of additional Shia Iraqi militiamen to Syria.
Bolton stated in September that American forces would remain in Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias.” Mattis, never disposed to recast the American mission in Syria as directed against Iran, had however stated in August, that a drawdown of American troops in Syria must wait for more diplomatic progress toward a United Nations-negotiated peace. The withdrawal announcement contradicts recent comments by US officials including Brett McGurk, special envoy to the anti-ISIL coalition (who resigned over the weekend in protest of Trump’s decision), and General Joseph Dunford, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who both indicated earlier this month that US troops would remain for the foreseeable future. A day before Trump’s announcement, State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino told reporters that U.S. forces were there “to ensure the enduring defeat of the Islamic State… we’ve made signiﬁcant progress recently in the campaign, but the job is not yet done.”
But the core transactional and isolationist perspective of President Trump has remained constant: in his view, it is time for others to pull their weight in the region, and to bring “our great young people home”. While some, in Washington and in Israel, were convinced that regional security policy, at least, was in what they considered dependable, experienced hands – including those of Mattis – who understand the “long game” against Iran, they seem to have been misled by their own yearnings. President Trump’s isolationist instincts and agenda won out: it was never clear that the opposing arguments were particularly persuasive for him. The current decision was presaged by the White House’s decision in mid-August to cut $230 million in stabilization assistance for northeastern Syria and shift the money to support other foreign policy priorities.
From the view of domestic politics, Trump’s view on Syria, especially his disinterest in leaving U.S. troops in harm’s way for an unclear mission, and on foreign policy in general, may well be much more popular outside of policy elites. As for the method – blindsiding many U.S. allies abroad and political allies of the President at home – at this point, it should not come as a surprise.
One interesting question, being debated back and forth in Washington right now, is what role Turkey played in the decision. Erdogan announced last week that “we will start the operation to clear the east of the Euphrates from separatist terrorists in a few days … The fact that we have deep differences in perception with the United States is no secret.” Trump spoke in the phone to Turkish president Erdogan on December 14, and Erdogan reportedly informed Trump that Turkey was planning to begin a military operation against Kurdish-held areas in Eastern Syria soon, and that U.S. forces would be in harm’s way. Proliferating leaks to the media from knowledgeable sources claim that the phone call led Trump to finalize his decision, against the advice of most of his advisors; administration spokesman deny it. Trump’s announcement is being portrayed in Turkey as a diplomatic triumph for Erdogan.
Who isn’t surprised? The actors in the region. They have been aware for a long time that the United States is disengaging from its Long War in the Middle East; that under Trump, it has no stomach for sustained activity abroad which does not have direct economic benefits; and that it is a “weak reed” on which to depend.
This is why to the big winners of the most recent developments are the “Astana Three”: Russia (Putin praised the announcement), Turkey and Iran. Presidents Rouhani and Erdogan met on 20 December for a pre-planned summit, and vowed to work closer to end the fighting in Syria. “The Americans have come to the conclusion that they can exercise power neither in Iraq and Syria nor in the entire region,” said Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of ground forces of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, at a news conference in Tehran.
The strategic dominance of these three powers over the dynamics of the region has been further cemented, since those who don’t pay – whether in treasure or in the willingness to spill blood – don’t get a chance to play. The intangible but crucially important element of positive momentum, and of elite and popular perception of “who is up and who is down”, is on the side of Moscow, Ankara and Tehran (though cracks in their alignment may widen). American allies, who understand the dynamic, will continue to snuggle up to the Bear, as Egypt, Jordan, Gulf States and, yes, Israel, have been doing for several years, not out of love, but out of clear-eyed realism. The Saudis, still – though perhaps shakily – under Mohammad bin Salman, are not going to be any kind of useful counterweight, as much as the regime hates Iran and Islamist Turkey. The Kurds have yet again learned Thucydides’ lesson: “the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must”, as the Americans throw them under the bus for a third time in fifty years.
Where does that leave Israel? In a situation not different from where we were before. Despite the hopes raised in some breasts in the past few months, it has been clear since 2015 that the heavy lifting of directly combatting the Iranian enmeshment in the fabric of new/old Syria was on us alone. If anyone can help us with that, , it would be Moscow, who had leverage on the ground, and not so much Washington, which will continue to provide political backing. The American troops in Syria were never going to significantly influence the regional balances of power – and were not sent there to do so – and, in fact, could have turned into a hostage to developments.
The probability of an American-engineered Middle East Security Alliance, or “Arab NATO”, while never high, is now even lower (the GCC, its extant predecessor, has been rendered useless by the Saudi-Qatari split). The possibility of a Turkish-Iranian condominium on the Kurdish issue and on Northeastern Syria is quite high, but what that means directly for Israel seems to be minimal in the short to medium term. However, setbacks to the Kurds and the removal of the U.S. “trip-wire” make it easier for pro-Iranian forces, and Iranian technology and weapons, to transit the Iraqi-Syrian border. ISIS will be emboldened – despite what the President says, they are way down, but not out. What will be portrayed as the U.S. retreat from Syria will both embolden them there (at least until they are eradiated by the Russians) and encourage their ideological sympathizers to carry out attacks around the world. This, while a threat to Jews abroad, is not more of a specific threat to Israel then to anyone else.
To the extent that the strategic relationship with the United States still is an important component of Israel’s national power and deterrence capability, we have taken a hit with the regional perception of a fickle American administration, though of course Washington is still our closest and most important ally. The possibility that Iran and Turkey will be emboldened by the American decision, is worrisome. The main counter to that will be robust deterrence from Israel, whose maintenance may increase the likeliness of escalation in Syria and Lebanon, and even more resort to the restraining hand of Russia. And the illustration that the President means what he says, should remind us of his statements (for instance, on August 21) that “Israel will have to pay a higher price … [the Palestinians will] get something very good because it’s their turn next”. Other anticipatable surprises may still be in store.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.
photo: Mahmoud Bali (VOA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons