Analysis |

Has Israel Become America's Military Contractor in Syria?

Attacks on Syria attributed by foreign sources to Israel, which have become more frequent in recent weeks, are highly consistent with the American strategy

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
Trump and Netanyahu following the presidential proclamation recognizing Golan Heights as Israeli territory, at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019.
Trump and Netanyahu following the presidential proclamation recognizing Golan Heights as Israeli territory, at the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019.Credit: DOUG MILLS / NYT
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

In early May, the U.S. special envoy to Syria, James Jeffrey, summed up American policy in Syria in an interview to the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.

“The U.S. supports Israel’s efforts to secure its self-defense. Israel is facing an existential threat from Iran, as they [the Iranians] have said a thousand times that their mission is to destroy Israel ... and Israel has the right to take whatever action it needs, being careful about Syrian casualties which the Israelis are, for the goal of saving Israel. Therefore, we are supportive of them in any way we can,” Jeffrey said, according to a transcript on the newspaper’s English-language website.

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When the interviewer asked what kind of assistance Israel needed to protect itself, whether it was diplomatic or logistical, whether via the Tanf military base on the border between Iraq and Syria, Jeffrey replied: “We give the support that is needed for effective Israeli actions to protect itself, and in protecting itself, it is protecting all neighbors of Assad: Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Lebanon.”

James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria, outside the Boynuyogun refugee camp in Turkey, March 3, 2020.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy for Syria, outside the Boynuyogun refugee camp in Turkey, March 3, 2020.Credit: MEHMET CALISKAN/ REUTERS

One wonders when these countries will realize that Israel is in fact their defensive wall against Iran. As far as is known, no request has been made by Turkey or Lebanon or Iraq or Jordan for Israel to continue its attacks on Syria as part of their own defensive strategy. But the American superpower apparently knows something that the decision makers in these countries don’t.

Even in Israel, the claim is not being made that Israel has been given free rein to attack Syria. Attacks attributed by foreign sources to Israel, which have become more frequent in recent weeks and reached a peak on Thursday night, are highly consistent with the American strategy that Jeffrey spoke about.

“Our policy is that all Iranian-commanded forces have to leave Syria, along with frankly all other military forces that entered after 2011. This includes the United States. [I]f all of the reports are correct about the Israeli Air Force, that would include the Israelis, and it would include the Turks,” he said.

This is a fascinating statement. Does Jeffrey mean that Israel must stop its aerial attacks in Syria (if they are in fact taking place, of course), even if they are intended to defend Israel and protect Syria’s neighbors and help remove Iranian forces from Syria? The answer is no, because Israel, according to the United States, has become a force that is carrying out American policy in Syria.

There is no point in looking for logic or consistency in U.S. policy in Syria (or in the Middle East in general). For example, President Donald Trump’s decision in October to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria has become a faded memory.

The rubble of a house that Syrian authorities said was attacked in an Israeli airstrike.
A photo from the Syrian official news agency SANA showing boys amid the rubble of a house that Syrian authorities said was attacked in an Israeli airstrike near Damascus, April 27, 2020. Credit: SANA via AP

A free pass

The lack of a determined U.S. policy gave Russia a free pass to enter Syria even during President Barack Obama’s administration, but under Trump, Russia has received full recognition of its right to remain in Syria, to manage its army and to carry out conduct diplomatic moves that might lead to a diplomatic solution.

In fact, in the same interview, Jeffrey said the desire to remove all foreign forces from Syria does not include Russia: “The Russians entered before 2011, therefore they are exempt. Everyone else came after the war had begun.” In other words, a foreign force needs to have been in another country for a sufficient amount of time to gain American legitimization for its presence, without reference to the scope of its forces or the nature of their actions.

The Russian military base at Tartus was built in the 1970s, but since then it has been transformed from a supply and maintenance base for Russian ships to a large military base that is an important stronghold in the Mediterranean. The Russian air force base at Hmeimim was built in 2015 and became permanent in 2017. Two other bases in Syria, T-4, which is reportedly frequently attacked by Israel, and the Shayrat air base are also used by the Russian air force.

Permanent Russian ground forces are operating alongside Turkish forces along the border of northern Syria. Russian military police are scattered in many parts of the country, and at the end of May, it was reported that there was dangerous proximity between U.S. and Russian forces.

Yet according to the United States, none of this requires the Russian forces to leave the country.

It appears that even Washington recognizes the limitations of its diplomatic power, limitations it created itself when it decided that Syria was not a worthy arena in which to act other than to fight the Islamic State.

From Israel’s standpoint, that is not only a wise American policy, which gives Israel a free hand. Israel also has Russian approval to act as it wishes as long as those actions don’t harm Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and focus on Iranian targets.

U.S. recognition of the legitimacy of the Russian presence in Syria also gives Russia approval to consolidate a presence in new arenas, such as Libya, where it has been working alongside separatist commander Khalifa Hifter. The United States has said that Washington is seeking a unified state in Libya under a single agreed-upon government, rather than the two governments with two parliaments in the country at this time.

Syrian President Assad and Russian President Putin.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin inspect troops in 2017 at the Hmeimim air base in Syria.Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

U.S. disengagement in the Middle East

But here too, the United States will have to accept a fait accompli decided by Russia together with Egypt, the Gulf Emirates, and France. They support Hifter against the Turkish-Qatari coalition that is providing military assistance to the internationally recognized Libyan government. Washington will find it difficult to demand the withdrawal of foreign troops from Libya after the precedent it created in Syria.

Purportedly recognizing the new reality being created in the Middle East, in which the United States is playing a diminishing role, is a realistic approach that suits America’s strategy of disengagement from the region. But it is misleadingly attributed to a rational and well-organized policy.

In fact, this was the default into which the United States dragged itself before Trump entered office. And America is being increasingly swept along with it during Trump’s term.

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