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Five Ways Trump’s Unnerving Decision on Syria Has Seriously Harmed Israel

Now facing the cold repercussions of Trump's isolationism and chaos, Israel is reeling. But it has few plausible ways left to lobby an unraveling president

Daniel B. Shapiro
Daniel B. Shapiro
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U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the Target Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 10, 2019.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the Target Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 10, 2019.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP
Daniel B. Shapiro
Daniel B. Shapiro

It was probably inevitable. Even Donald Trump’s most ardent admirers in Israel understood that it was always a package deal.

Strong support for Israel’s position on issues with political resonance in the United States - Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, the Iran deal - was bestowed by a president with a well-documented history, in his long business and entertainment career and his short political rise, of a Me First-America First ethos and a total disregard for the concerns of others, even those in his own camp.

But that foreknowledge does not lessen the sting.

With Trump’s decision this week to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria and give a green light to a Turkish invasion of areas controlled by the Kurdish fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, Israel came face to face with the cold, hard reality of the damage caused by Trump's isolationist instincts, and chaotic, impulsive decision-making.

Still, no one can honestly claim to be surprised.

Policy differences between Israel and the United States on how best to support the Kurds of Syria and Iraq are not new. Both countries have seen value in building partnerships with members of this long-suffering stateless minority, many of whose leaders - although not all - have adopted moderate, pro-Western policies, and have struggled to defend themselves from oppressive regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, while assisting their brethren in Iran and Turkey.

In 2014, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to express public support for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq. It was easy to understand the Israeli view.

On a strategic level, Israel would welcome the emergence of a moderate, pro-Western Muslim state in the Middle East. On an emotional level, who can argue that the long-suffering Kurds, caught in a vice between regional powers, do not deserve a chance at self-determination?

But the United States understood that backing Kurdish independence, beyond the significant measure of autonomy they had achieved in Northern Iraq, would deeply strain relations with the central government in Baghdad, a key strategic partner.

It fell to me, as President Obama’s U.S. ambassador, to inform the Israeli government that U.S. policy could not support this call, and that Israeli expressions of support highlighted the gap between us. They were not repeated.

The story replayed itself in 2017 when Israel, nearly alone among the nations of the world, voiced its support for a Kurdish referendum for independence in Northern Iraq and the establishment of a State of Kurdistan.

But the United States, now under President Trump, again calculated its interests differently from Israel.

It opposed the referendum, and advised the Kurds against it. The vote, which went forward and was far short of a declaration of independence, caused much of the blowback from Baghdad the United States was concerned about, and left the Iraqi Kurds worse off.

The United States and Israel have learned to manage our different perspectives on this question, even as U.S. support for Kurdish autonomy in northern Iraq and its partnership with Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS has deepened.

Pro-Turkish Syrian fighters drive an armored personnel carrier across the border into Syria as they take part in an offensive against Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria, October 11, 2019. Credit: AFP

But Trump’s total reversal of the U.S. position in Syria is unnerving Israelis. As they calculate it, it harms Israel’s interests - and American interests, according to a bipartisan chorus of Trump’s critics - in at least five ways.

First, it abandons and weakens the United States’ Syrian Kurdish partners who have been the main ground troops in the fight against ISIS. These well-trained and committed fighters have sustained some 11,000 casualties in the four-year counter-ISIS campaign, contributing greatly to many of its successes.

Second, it hands a victory to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, while he leads a NATO ally, has increasingly acted in ways counter to U.S. interests, cozied up to Russia, supported Hamas and other Muslim Brotherhood movements, and generally acted as the regional nemesis to Israel.

Third, it strengthens the Assad regime’s attempts to reconsolidate control over Syrian territory it has lost in the civil war. This is also a victory for Russia, Assad’s patron, and ultimately for Iran, which seeks to operate and insert military forces to harm Israel in Syrian territory under Damascus’ control.

Fourth, it can facilitate the revival of ISIS. While ISIS no longer controls territory, active cells continue to operate, with the motivation and capability to attack regional and Western targets. Camps containing ISIS elements, now controlled by Kurdish fighters, could soon be overrun, abandoned, or left to unreliable Turkish control.

And finally, the decision sends a message throughout the Middle East that the United States will not stand with - indeed, will abandon - its partners and allies at key moments. While Iran is attacking tankers and Saudi oil facilities in the Gulf with no U.S. response, and threatening Israel on many fronts, this impression of U.S. disengagement has all of America’s partners feeling uneasy.

Some compare Trump’s decision with Obama’s reversal in 2013 on striking Syria following its documented use of chemical weapons against civilians. Indeed, that decision, too, was an abrupt shift from what the administration has forecast, and it led some in the region to question the United States’ willingness to use force anywhere.

But there were also differences. At the time, the alternative that emerged - a U.S.-Russian diplomatic agreement forcing Syria to remove and destroy 1,300 tons of its chemical weapons stocks - was cheered by Israelis. Some Israeli leaders even took credit for the idea.

And, while the change of direction did not come without downsides, it offered a plausible strategic trade-off: The elimination of the Syrian chemical weapons threat against Syria’s neighbors. In the wake of the agreement, Israel suspended the distribution of gas masks to its citizens, a program it has never resumed. No one has been able to articulate a similar benefit of Trump’s decision.

Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians arrive to Tall Tamr town, in the Syrian northwestern Hasakeh province, after fleeing Turkish bombardment on the northeastern towns along the Turkish border on OctoberCredit: AFP

Others argue that the Iran nuclear deal itself undercut Israeli and regional confidence in the United States, and there is truth to that assertion. But that deal, the end of a methodical policy process, was transparently discussed with Israel and other regional allies for years. It was anything but a surprise. Rather, it was the predictable result of a well-defined policy - one the United States and Israel disagreed about, but could hardly fail to see coming.

Trump is an impulsive, erratic, tweet-from-the-hip president, who makes far-reaching strategic decisions without consulting or even informing allies. After a phone call with Erdogan last week, he abandoned a policy agreed upon with his advisers, failing to inform them and rolling over their objections.

When he tried something similar last December, two key officials - Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Special Envoy for the Counter-ISIS Campaign Brett McGurk - resigned over it. Other officials, led by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, partially walked it back.

But today, there is no one left in Trump’s orbit with the spine to walk away or the mettle to talk him down.

The impeachment inquiry Trump now faces only deepens the concern. Trump's raging tweets and unhinged rantings give the impression of a man totally out of control, careening from crisis to crisis in a desperate bid for survival.

America’s allies everywhere - not just in the Middle East - notice and worry: Who and what else will he sell out as he goes into a tailspin?

With Trump on the edge, and having invested so heavily in the personal relationship with him, Israel has few plausible means to try to shape U.S. policy that it finds unhelpful to its interests.

Criticism of Trump or collaboration with alternative centers of power in the United States, such as bipartisan Congressional leaders who oppose his Syria decision (and which Israel has largely ignored for three years) could generate even sharper blowback.

In the end, a U.S. president needs to make decisions based on what is best for American interests, even when allies disagree. But the United States and its partnerships are stronger when allies understand the logic of the decisions, can make their voice heard, and have confidence that the U.S. policy process is working. None of that exists now.

Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro

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