Analysis |

Trump’s Disengagement Plan From Syria Leaves Israel With Big Concerns About Iran

The U.S. president seems more concerned with North Korea and Charlottesville than Syria, which worries Jerusalem. If the trend continues, Iran will have a real military presence on Israel’s two northern borders

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
U.S. soldiers at a road that links to Raqqa city, northeast Syria, July 26, 2017.
U.S. soldiers at a road that links to Raqqa city, northeast Syria, July 26, 2017.Credit: Hussein Malla/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

They were hardly here, and they’re already disappearing. For the six and a half years of the Syrian civil war, there was only a limited presence of U.S. military forces on the soil of the divided country – and even that was for a relatively limited time. The Americans sent weapons to the rebel organizations it defined as moderate, which fought against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad; organized training camps for them in neighboring countries; operated a war room in Jordan to coordinate military activity; and sent small teams from elite special forces to assist the rebel forces.

All that was done sparingly, in a manner that did not greatly affect the course of the war. But starting in the summer of 2014, the United States changed its priorities. The surprising series of conquests by the Islamic State group – but mainly the widespread airing of several horrific videos in which executions of Western citizens were documented – convinced the administration of then-U.S. President Barack Obama to focus efforts on the war against the jihadi extremists.

The Assad regime didn’t invent ISIS. In effect, the roots of the organization can be found in the chain of events that began with the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, the outlawing of the ruling Ba’ath party following the downfall of the regime of President Saddam Hussein, and the dismantling of his army, which left thousands of Sunni officers without a livelihood.

But America’s change in policy regarding the Islamic State helped save the Syrian regime. The massive aerial attacks by the broad international coalition created by Obama inhibited the progress of ISIS, and also contributed to the weakening of the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaida affiliate in Syria.

Three years later, ISIS has still not been defeated definitively, and the organization is still entrenched around the city of Raqqa, the caliphate’s de facto capital in eastern Syria. On the other hand, the Syrian regime – with the help of the brutal aerial pounding of the other rebel organizations by the Russian Air Force – survived. Indeed, it has even returned to rule quite effectively over about 30 percent of the country.

Now, the Trump administration is completing the change initiated by Obama. The punitive attack ordered by President Donald Trump in April against the Syrian air base near Homs (in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime) has to date failed to signal a transition to a more active policy. The Americans are already making it clear they have no intention of remaining in Syria after the fall of Raqqa.

In late July, The Washington Post reported that Trump has decided to discontinue the supply of weapons to the rebel organizations in Syria.

This decision is not lacking in logic: The network of local alliances among rebels – all of whom are more or less extremist – prevents U.S. intelligence officers from ensuring the combat materiel would not fall into the wrong hands, or to prevent acts of slaughter against pro-regime civilians.

However, the president’s step is part of a broader approach. It’s difficult to talk about Trump’s “policy” in any area, but at the moment it looks as if the administration is losing interest in the Middle East – and, accordingly, to some extent is reducing its military activity there as well.

North Korea’s insane threats seem to Washington to be a more pressing problem, and Trump is preoccupied in any event with a series of domestic problems, most of them of his own creation – from the investigation into his ties with Russia, to his evasive responses this week to the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville.

Bassam Badareen, a commentator who is close to the Jordanian intelligence services, wrote in Al-Quds al-Arabi this week that Druze militias and Bedouin tribes in southern Syria – whom the Jordanians armed and trained so they would serve as a kind of forward defensive line against the regime and ISIS – have received an order not to interfere with the movement of the Syrian Army and pro-Assad forces. Jordan is concerned both by the U.S. exit from the region and the increasing presence of Shi’ite militias near its border, Badareen added.

These developments are of concern to Israel, too. As reported here in June, Jerusalem fears the formation of territorial contiguity on the ground, under Iranian influence, from Tehran through central Iraq and eastern Syria, up to Damascus and Beirut. The main “obstacle” blocking this main traffic artery is around the small Syrian city of Al-Tanf, which is near the Jordanian-Syrian-Iraqi border triangle. The Americans and British have built a large military base there, where they trained militias linked to them, led by Kurdish forces. But it’s unclear how long they are planning to stay there.

At the same time, the onset of the cease-fire between the Assad regime and rebels on the Golan Heights has enabled the regime to send its own forces to the region, including Shi’ite militias. This is the development that Israel warned the Americans and Russians about, unsuccessfully, on the eve of the signing of the agreement in July. If the present trend continues, it means Iran will have a genuine military presence on Israel’s two northern borders – in Lebanon thanks to Hezbollah; and in Syria due to the Shi’ite militias, with the support of advisers and intelligence personnel from the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Haaretz reported this week on the trip to Washington by a delegation of senior members from the Israeli intelligence community, headed by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, for talks about the situation in southern Syria. But Israel’s frustration with the Americans goes beyond Syria’s borders. It also relates to the overall attitude of the Trump administration to Iran (if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned about Trump’s ambivalent attitude toward neo-Nazis, he is doing a good job of concealing it).

In a presentation to the government, Cohen outlined the expansion of Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. And Netanyahu, in a speech in Ashdod, provided them with a headline: “In essence, in one sentence – ISIS is leaving and Iran is entering. We are strongly opposed to the military entrenchment of Iran and its satellites, first and foremost Hezbollah, in Syria. We will do everything necessary to maintain Israel’s security.”

Trump seems less impressed. It’s true the president approved new sanctions against Iran last month, in light of its ballistic missile program and the supplying of weapons to terror organizations. However – again, as far as we can decipher Trump – Israel estimates he has no intention at the moment of confronting Iran, and he is interested primarily in success in the battle against ISIS, followed by the evacuation of U.S. troops from the region.

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