Analysis |

Trump's Retreat From Syria Is Already Changing the Mideast for Worse, and Israel Should Beware

U.S. president's conduct should concern Israel especially in connection to the ongoing battle against Iran's regional influence ■ Affair of Israeli woman jailed by Russia ruins Netanyahu's claim of sway over world leaders

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A UH-60 Black Hawk crew member flies over the Syrian countryside, August 17, 2019.
A UH-60 Black Hawk crew member flies over the Syrian countryside, August 17, 2019.Credit: U.S. Army photo by Spc. Alec Dionne
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The phone conversation between Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan is having catastrophic results. The green light the U.S. president gave his Turkish counterpart on October 6 (even if Trump later clumsily tried to play down its significance) has produced tremors that have completely changed the situation in northern Syria, already affecting the strategic picture across the entire Middle East. (Click here for live updates)

Here’s a balance sheet of the last few days. The United States has betrayed the Kurds, its key allies in defeating the Islamic State, and evacuated its troops from Kurdish areas in Syria, as Trump had promised Erdogan. Turkey has penetrated 30 kilometers (19 miles) into Syria, sending tens of thousands of civilians fleeing. Hundreds of Kurds have been killed by Turkish air raids, with a few instances (such as the murder of a female Kurdish politician and the execution of prisoners on camera) of war crimes by Turkish soldiers and their Syrian militia allies.

Meanwhile, hundreds if not thousands of Islamic State prisoners have escaped from camps controlled by the Kurds. In their despair, Kurdish leaders have appealed to Bashar Assad, asking the Syrian regime to take control of certain Kurdish areas on the assumption that even the murderous regime in Damascus is better than what they can expect under the Turkish jackboot.

This is another chapter in the long tragedy known as the Syrian civil war, from which all the worst people are benefiting – not only Erdogan, who abandoned the Sunni rebels in the middle of the war, lining up with Russia while reconciling with the Assad regime. It’s also the Islamic State, which will now be able to raise its head. We can assume that the implications of freed ISIS prisoners will soon be felt in terror attacks in the area and possibly across Syria.

As Pence pushes Syria cease-fire with Erdogan, Trump undercuts negotiationsCredit: Haaretz

The axis supporting Assad, led by Iran, is also making gains. First, the regime is expanding its sphere of influence in eastern Syria. Second, the Iranians will be pleased with reports of another Trump decision: to remove U.S. troops not just from Kurdish areas but from other areas in eastern Syria.

Turkish soldiers gather on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Manbij, in 2019.Credit: AFP

Obama’s shortcomings

Almost from day one, Trump’s foreign policy has been capricious, lacking any deep understanding and often tainted by unrelated considerations. The change for the worse this time is that the patently obvious damage is being felt immediately. This explains efforts by Republican senators and House members to initiate sanctions on Turkey, only a few days after the president let Ankara launch the campaign.

And yet, the fury expressed by former senior officials in the Obama administration is somewhat hypocritical. The American failure in Syria began during the term of the Democrat president, who decided to take no action while the Assad regime slaughtered civilians, even when it was proved that Assad was using chemical weapons despite the red line drawn by Barack Obama. In Syria, Trump’s failures are no greater than Obama’s, other than the fact that the current president acts with brutality and scorn.

Israel has no wish or ability to intervene on the Kurds’ behalf, despite shows of solidarity in Jerusalem. From Israel’s perspective, the practical implications of the U.S. abandonment of the Kurds are negligible. The critical question for Jerusalem is the continued presence of American troops at the Al-Tanf base, which has some impact on the land corridor linking Iran and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. So far, reports indicate that the troops staying. An evacuation of that base would greatly worry Israel.

In the longer term, the clear evidence of the chaotic way the U.S. president conducts business is worrisome. He seems committed only to himself. Against this backdrop, it’s almost amusing to note the shrinking number of Trump supporters in the Israeli media, who need to employ a little sophistry to justify the actions of the supposed lover of Israel currently occupying the White House.

Bad news for Bibi

Trump’s conduct is worrisome in the wider context of the regional struggle against Iran. The crisis in the Gulf is far from over because Tehran hasn’t yet attained its goals: the lifting of the harsh sanctions in exchange for a renewal of nuclear talks with Washington. Cracks in the Sunni alliance that sided with the United States are widening, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates probing to see if some accommodation can be reached with Iran. We can bet that Benjamin Netanyahu understood this a long time ago when he said that Israel must rely on itself, even if he only alluded to it indirectly in his speeches.

The bad news for the prime minister isn’t only related to Washington. His election campaign slogan “Netanyahu, a different league,” accompanied by photos of him and world leaders, probably won’t be repeated if we go for another round. It’s not just Trump – Putin is showing that he’s not exactly a friend either.

The arrest in Moscow of Naama Issachar, an Israeli woman who was carrying a small amount of hashish as she passed through a Moscow airport, has wider implications. She has been sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. The Russians are holding her as ransom for the release of Aleksey Burkov, a Russian hacker imprisoned in Israel. He was arrested in 2015 at the request of the United States, which seeks his extradition for cybercrimes. The pressure applied by Russia for his release shows that Burkov has information on Russian cyberactivities that culminated in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Credit: AFP

Netanyahu has tried several times to convince Putin to release Issachar, but to no avail. He may yet succeed. Before Sukkot, President Reuvin Rivlin appealed to Putin as well.

Undoubtedly the vast experience accumulated by Netanyahu has opened doors for him with world leaders, but this and his supporters’ attempts to portray him as someone with almost magical influence on world leaders has now been revealed as baseless and overblown.

While Trump watches the damage he created, Putin is holding a rare friendly visit in Gulf states – the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The New York Times has just published an article showing that Russia deliberately bombed four hospitals last spring in areas controlled by Syrian rebels. This is the Moscow that has gained such influence in the Middle East thanks to the withdrawal by Obama and Trump. There should be no more illusions regarding Russia – there are no sentiments there for Israel’s worries or special circumstances.

Aleksey Burkov, being detained by Israeli police officers.Credit: Courtesy of News Channel 13, Reshet

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