Meeting last month with Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came away satisfied that he and the American president were in agreement on a wide range of issues, including Syria, where Israel wants to limit Iranian influence as the Syrian civil war wraps up.
“We don’t have any limits on our action in Syria,” Netanyahu told reporters. “We see eye to eye,” he said of Israeli and U.S. policy.
A few weeks later, Middle East watchers are wondering which eye bears watching: Trump keeps saying he wants out of Syria, while U.S. defense officials and diplomats say the United States remains committed to its role in pacifying the country after seven years of a devastating war.
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The equivocation is unsettling Israel, said Jonathan Schanzer, a vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who travels frequently to Israel and meets with its officials.
“There is a concern” in Israel “that the mixed messaging right now is revealing a certain confusion at a minimum, perhaps a lack of will to remain in Syria,” he said in an interview.
How are the messages mixed?
“We’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon,” Trump said last week, just hours after a Pentagon spokeswoman told reporters in a briefing that the United States was committed to its role in the region at least until the Islamic State terrorist group was defeated.
On Monday, U.S. defense officials said they would send dozens of troops to Syria to add to the 2,000 troops already there assisting U.S. allied rebel forces. On Tuesday, Trump said “it’s time” to get out of Syria.
“It is very costly for our country, and it helps other countries more than it helps us,” he said. “I want to get out, I want to bring our troops back home.”
Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who is now a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said Trump’s pronouncements were stirring turmoil in the region.
“It raises fundamental questions not just for Israel, for our Kurdish allies, even our adversaries, about whether the United States plans to remain in Syria to complete the fight against ISIS and to help prevent an Iranian takeover of those areas that ISIS has vacated,” he said. The U.S. forces in Syria are advising and assisting Syrian Kurdish rebels. ISIS is an acronym for Islamic State.
Israelis fear that the defeat of the Islamic State, while welcome, leaves in place Iran, an enemy, and Russia, a country that is friendly to Israel but whose interests are not as aligned as the United States. Russia, notably, has been Iran’s de facto ally in Syria.
The U.S. presence, comparatively, is limited, but simply by maintaining a presence, the United States signals that it has Israel’s back — freeing Israel to take action, as it did in February when Israel retaliated with airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria after an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace.
That becomes a much shakier proposition absent a U.S. presence, said Moshe Maoz, Israel’s preeminent Syria expert.
“Israel will have to bomb Iranian positions in Syria” if Iran establishes a weapons supply line to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia allied with Iran that is assisting Syria, or if it establishes a permanent presence in Syria, said Maoz, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “And the danger is that the Russians will intervene, and Israel needs the backing of the United States.”
Russian officials have reportedly told their Israeli counterparts that Israel likely will have to put up with a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, said a U.S. withdrawal could embolden the Islamic State.
“I think the consequences at this stage would be very negative for the SDF-held areas where the U.S. maintains a presence, particularly as no peace plan has been devised between the SDF and Turkey,” he said, referring to the U.S.-backed rebel alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces. “Indeed, it is possible that there could be an attack on multiple fronts against SDF areas by Turkey from the north and the regime and its allies from the south. The concern that this could create a vacuum for I.S. to regain some strength is not unjustified.”
Heather Hurlburt, who directs the New Models of Policy Change initiative at New America, a liberal think tank, said the United States remains too entrenched in the region though its various alliances to fully disengage.
“What I assume is happening is that the connections between the Israeli military and the Pentagon are incredibly tight,” said Hurlburt, a foreign policy speechwriter in the Clinton administration.
“Those folks are talking to each other, in terms of what the Israelis need I’m sure that line is open,” she said. “The people in the administration who understand Israel’s security concerns are consoling themselves that they’ve got all the firepower in place if and when they’re needed.”
Joost Hiltermann, the Brussels-based Middle East and North Africa director at the Crisis Group, an international think tank, said Iran’s influence in Syria may be overstated. Russia, he said, is in Syria as a means of leveraging its influence elsewhere in the world, and is not invested in advancing the interests of Iran. The Assad regime, which Russia and Iran have been propping up in the Syrian civil war, trusts Russia more than Iran; Assad and his clique remain secularists and are wary of Iran’s religious posturing.
“I’m not convinced for Iran this is sustainable,” he said of Iran’s ambition for a permanent stake in Syria. “They don’t have allies.” Still, he said, Israel had reason to be alert to Iranian efforts to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, which launched a war with Israel in 2006.
Still, Hiltermann said, Israel had cause to be unsettled by Trump’s pledges.
“The Iranians would benefit most were the United States to remove its footprint,” he said.
Schanzer said Trump’s promises to pull out were especially jarring for Israel and other allies, who expected Trump to reverse the policy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, of limiting U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict — not to advance it to its logical conclusion and leave.
“From the Israeli perspective, this is handing over the keys to their backyard to their mortal enemies,” he said. “Across the board this would be an unmitigated disaster and also an unforced error.”