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Trump's Unpredictability Threatens Israel's Balanced, Rational Syria Policy

With the fall of the de facto capital of ISIS seemingly imminent, no one knows whether the U.S. president will opt for isolationalism or a continued presence in the Middle East

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Protesters gathering outside the Trump International Hotel in Washington, June 28, 2017, as the president arrives for a fundraiser.
Trump's unpredictability threatens Israel's balanced, rational Syria policy. Pictured: Protesters outside Trump International Hotel in Washington, June 28, 2017Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on "Advancing U.S. Interests at the United Nations" on Wednesday that diplomats she talks to at the UN frequently complain about the unpredictable foreign policy of the Trump administration. This, Haley argued, is a good thing. While other countries are trying to guess what the United States might do next, the administration has more room to maneuver.

But the surprise element in President Donald Trump’s foreign policy – a nice way of describing the almost complete lack of any policy – doesn’t make America's allies in the Middle East happy. Israel’s immediate vicinity is currently roiling with military clashes, mutual threats and complex power struggles, but it remains largely a region in waiting mode. More than five months after Trump was sworn in as president, Middle Eastern countries are having trouble understanding where his administration is headed.

Israel, like the conservative Sunni Muslim camp led by Saudi Arabia, wants a strong and continuous American presence in the region. But the more time passes, the more questions emerge. Are the Americans here to stay, or do they have one single goal: to destroy the caliphate established by the Islamic State group in Iraq – after which they’ll leave the region? What will happen the day after the fall of Raqqa (the de facto capital of the caliphate), which all signs indicate is imminent?

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis pledged this week that the United States would refrain from mission creep – that is, unplanned expansion of the U.S. military objective into Syria.

The United States, he said, would remain focused on the war against the Islamic State and would not be dragged into the Syrian civil war. Mattis, along with National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster, is considered the one to lead a relatively aggressive and determined line with regard to Iranian expansionism in the region. But the person who will ultimately decide is the president, who has shown a tendency toward isolationism and who argued throughout his election campaign against getting involved in needless wars.

And Mattis is now also in charge of the effort to formulate a policy toward North Korea, which is at the top of the administration’s international priorities. It’s hard to know whether he can simultaneously lead a different U.S. approach to the Middle East.

Trump is still having difficulty filling senior positions in his administration, and is showing an uncontrollable appetite for praise and admiration from his underlings. (The show of flattery from his televised cabinet meeting a few weeks ago was more reminiscent of the Saudi monarchy than a Western democracy.)

Former prisoners of the Islamic State, pardoned by a council that is expected to govern Raqqa, walking in a village north of Raqqa, Syria, June 24, 2017.Credit: GORAN TOMASEVIC/REUTERS

At the same time, he is laboring under the huge burden of the Russian affair right now. Even if at this point the extent of Russian involvement in last year's presidential election campaign – and the nature of the connections the Russians had with Trump – have not been made clear, the president is a potential suspect for obstructing the investigation.

Paranoia is increasing in Washington, along with outright loathing of Russia, consistently fueled by new revelations of the investigation’s progress and dramatic statements by senior members of the Democratic Party. Under these circumstances, even if Trump wanted to, he would probably have a hard time reaching a workable arrangement with the Russians on dividing power and influence in Syria.

These developments are disturbing for Israel. In the long term, they raise the question of whether Trump can provide reliable support if and when a real test comes. His predecessor, President Barack Obama – whom the Netanyahu government insulted and disparaged at every opportunity – actually did meet all his security commitments to Israel.

In the shorter term, there is still the Syrian problem. For more than six years of civil war there, Israel seems to have conducted itself in a balanced and rational manner. It set its red lines – preventing the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah; responding to any firing into its territory – and, in contrast to the Obama administration, it stuck to them.

The deployment of two Russian squadrons in northern Syria, in September 2015, gradually tilted the balance of power in Syria toward the Assad regime, and also required Israel to make adjustments. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately flew to Moscow, and since then has met five more times with President Vladimir Putin. Israel established an apparatus with Russia to prevent aerial friction and, according to foreign reports, has continued its assaults on weapons convoys. But it has not moved onto farther-range bombardments, in order to reduce the risk of a clash with the Russian air force.

But bigger issues have surfaced recently. Closer to home, Israel and Jordan are both disturbed by the progress of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah and Iranian-backed, Iraqi-Shi’ite militias toward the town of Daraa near the border with Jordan, and from there possibly to the Golan Heights. Israel has already defined the return of Iranian forces and Hezbollah militants to the Syrian Golan – where they have not been seen for more than two years – as a red line.

The real game is taking place far from Israel’s borders and almost beyond its sphere of influence. That is the race, described in Haaretz earlier this week, to take control of the areas the Islamic State is abandoning as it withdraws from Raqqa. At the moment, it seems the Iranian effort to create a contiguous overland corridor of influence – from western Iraq and eastern Syria to Damascus and Beirut – is working out better than the countereffort to take control of the Sunni militias, some of which are now receiving U.S. support.

Obama, who feared military involvement and did not want to damage his main effort in the Middle East – to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran – refrained almost entirely from ground action in Syria. Trump’s position on the matter is still a mystery. In Israel, political and military circles are tensely following developments. Is Washington heading for an agreement with Moscow? Toward a more decisive move to block the Iranians? Or toward gradually disengaging after the conquest of Raqqa?

Any decision on the matter will have broad implications on a series of sub-conflicts – from the Saudi-Qatari clash to the crisis between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza.

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