The U.S. President is weak. He is running away, with America’s tail between its legs. He is abandoning Israel, betraying the Kurds and sticking a knife in the back of Bashar Assad’s opponents. He is strengthening Iran, handing a victory to Russia, throwing a lifeline to ISIS and encouraging radical Islam. This is what Benjamin Netanyahu and his disciples would undoubtedly be reciting now, if the U.S. President’s name were Barack Hussein Obama, with added emphasis on his middle name, so that everyone gets the message.
But the President of the U.S. is Donald Trump, Lion of Judea, Cyrus incarnate, Netanyahu’s soul mate and the best friend that Israel ever had. He abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and told the Palestinians where to get off. So that when it is Trump who suddenly decides to withdraw 2000 American troops from Syria, Israel understands. It respects any decision. Its criticism, if at all, will be nuanced and coated with sugar. And it will pray that its apprehensions about the American move are not borne out.
This is what happens to a country and a prime minister who have wagered all their chips on empty gestures, such as the embassy move, at the expense of the far greater and more immediate threat on its northern border. This is what happens when one relies on evangelicals - who couldn’t care less about Syria, at best, or are praying for it to spark the war of Gog and Magog, at worst - as its sole advocate in Washington. This is what awaits an Israeli leader who gets bogged down in the thick molasses of flattery and kowtowing to a U.S. President, to the extent that he effectively loses any ability to challenge him or to enlist Congress and public opinion against his decisions. This is the destiny of a prime minister who is terrified that any direct public rebuke could make Trump blow his top and endanger the beautiful friendship he worked so hard to build.
In the next few weeks and months, Israel will watch with bated breath as the U.S. relinquishes much of its ability to influence events on the ground in Syria. Although U.S. officials promised on Wednesday to maintain the U.S. air campaign, without a significant ground presence, its deterrence will be weakened, its ability to quickly deploy troops on the ground will disappear and its impact on a final settlement of the Syrian civil war will diminish dramatically.
The withdrawal, announced on Wednesday by U.S. defense officials, concedes hegemony in Syria to the Kremlin, either because this is what Trump promised in his election campaign or as part of a more nefarious payoff, of the kind that is now being investigated by Robert Mueller.
According to reports in U.S. media, Trump overruled senior army and Pentagon officials, who objected to the quick pullback. Trump tweeted on Wednesday “We have defeated ISIS” but U.S. defense experts claim that the Islamic terrorists continue to hold significant swaths of territory in northern Syria, that the organization is definitely down, but certainly not out. If a worst case scenario emerges, history might list Trump’s ISIS braggadocio alongside George Bush’s woeful 2003 declaration “Mission Accomplished” on Iraq or Senator George Aiken’s famous 1966 recommendation that the U.S. declare victory in Vietnam before it scurries away.
Trump’s decision is likely to accelerate an expected Turkish offensive against the Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria. Fear of a clash with U.S. troops has hitherto deterred Turkish President Erdogan from launching the onslaught, but it turns out that it scared Trump even more.
The Kurds, who were armed by the U.S. and manned the front lines of the war on ISIS, will now be left to fend for themselves against a bigger and stronger Turkish army, which takes no prisoners. For them, Trump’s withdrawal is a great betrayal, and possibly a gateway to disaster and massacre.
The imminent U.S. withdrawal has symbolic and not only military portent. Solve your own problems, the White House is telling the Middle East. You will soon be alone, against the Kremlin, the Ayatollahs in Tehran and Assad’s murderous regime, it is signaling Israel. We are no longer engaged. We’ve spent too much money on your fruitless wars already. After all, we are for America First, not America and Israel first, in case you misheard.
Israel will know how to defend itself, Netanyahu said on Wednesday, putting on a brave face. It’s quite possible he’s right. But it will be doing so from a weakened position, with its big brother no longer behind it, at a time when its room for maneuver has been seriously curtailed already, in the wake of the September downing of the Russian aircraft over Latakia.
Trump’s decision, if it stays in force, inflicts a direct and harsh blow on Israel’s national security, but Jerusalem will accept the setback with empathy and love. It will now have to pretend that the spit from the White House is actually the bountiful rain we’ve all been waiting for.
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