The Israel Angle to Trump’s Syria Sellout 

October 16, 2019
Turkish armored vehicles enter Syria at Akcakale, Turkey, on Oct. 10. Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images

Late on the night of Oct. 6, the White House issued a statement announcing that after a call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Donald Trump had decided to withdraw American forces from northeastern Syria. Trump had threatened to remove U.S. troops from Syria last December, leading Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to resign, but the full withdrawal was never carried out. 

Yet after lobbying from Erdogan, Trump apparently turned on a dime and decided to pull U.S. forces out of the Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria, leaving the U.S.-allied, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) wide open to a Turkish invasion of the territory. And indeed, as American soldiers left the area on Oct. 7, the Turkish army began to prepare to move into the Rojava autonomous zone and then commenced military operations two days later.

This is primarily a story about the ongoing back and forth between the U.S. and Turkey over American support for Syrian Kurdish fighters. The SDF is connected to Turkey’s arch-foes in the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and the existence of Kurdish autonomy in Syria is deeply threatening to Turkey as it raises the prospect of Turkish Kurds demanding their own autonomy. The SDF fighters also have been the most effective in Syria in taking on ISIS, and they are arrayed not only against ISIS but against Syrian President Bashar Assad, as well, making them doubly attractive as American allies. American support for the SDF has understandably caused enormous tension with Turkey, which despite its recent behavior is a NATO member and historically an American ally. However, the U.S. has allied with the Kurds in Syria since the Barack Obama administration, making anything Trump does in either direction a betrayal of an ally.

But there are also Israel angles to this story, and they are important ones. The first and most obvious is that this is only the latest evidence that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli government officials were foolish at best and cynically self-serving at worst in rushing to declare Trump as their greatest friend and most unwavering champion. When Trump first announced nearly a year ago that he was pulling out of Syria (also following a conversation with Erdogan), Netanyahu unsuccessfully tried to talk Trump out of it amid public Israeli consternation that perhaps Trump was less reliably in Israel’s corner than had been assumed. Then as now, the mistake was assuming that Trump had any special affinity for Israel or that Israel would be the sole exception to the iron law of Trump’s fundamentally self-interested and transactional nature. The Israeli government mistook actions that literally cost Trump nothing, such as calling the Jerusalem consulate the new embassy, as a sign that he would always look out for Israeli interests even when it involved tradeoffs. The evidence for that has been and continues to be nonexistent.

But it is also important not to misread Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds as a direct corollary for how he would treat Israel, despite the sudden angst among Israeli commentators. The Trump administration is not going to leave Israel at the mercy of its foes in the same stark manner as it has the Kurds for all sorts of reasons, from the far more robust nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship to the role that Israel plays in boosting American security and intelligence capabilities. What should make Trump’s move in Syria so worrisome for Israel is not what it signals about direct U.S. actions, but how it will impact other regional actors.

Trump’s erratic swings and turn-on-a-dime foreign policy, embodied in their purest form by his Syria announcement, have introduced unprecedented uncertainty into American policy decisions. Two of the most valuable commodities in international relations are credibility and predictability, since they establish basic rules of the game that produce deterrence and lead to measured responses. Trump’s behavior means that neither allies nor foes can rely on any type of a predictable American response to certain actions, which in turn encourages risk-taking and independent, rather than coordinated, action.

“What should make Trump’s move in Syria so worrisome for Israel is not what it signals about direct U.S. actions, but how it will impact other regional actors.”

In Israel’s case, this makes the prospect of conflict with Iran more likely. Leaving aside Netanyahu’s Iran deal miscalculation stemming from his misreading of Trump, where he assumed that lobbying Trump to exit the nuclear deal would also result in eventual U.S. military action to contain Iran, it now seems to be clear to the Israeli government that it cannot and should not rely on the U.S. to deter Iranian aggression in any sphere. An Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran is now likelier than at any point in the past, as even during the Obama administration the Netanyahu government was sufficiently convinced that there were circumstances in which the U.S. would take military action. On the Iranian side, the lesson that it will take from the Kurdish turnaround and from Trump’s dithering over whether and how to respond to the Iranian cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities is that it can be even more aggressively adventurous in targeting American allies and partners, including Israel. Perhaps that will be an overreaching misread and perhaps it won’t, but there is simply no way to tell given Trump’s behavior, which is what creates such a combustible and dangerous environment.

It also makes it more likely that Sunni states, which have been aligned with Israel in trying to balance against Iran under the assumption that ultimately the U.S. will not abandon them, will shift to jumping on the bandwagon with Iran in order to stave off Iranian aggression. After all, if the U.S. cannot be relied on to back up its allies and will instead abandon them at Trump’s whim, the calculus for how to deal with an Iranian threat will change. There are already reports that Saudi Arabia is rethinking its stance toward Iran and is looking to reach a rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, which would open the floodgates for other states to follow. This isn’t surprising in an environment where the wide perception is that the U.S. is trying its hardest to exit the Middle East.

The clear loser in all of this will be Israel, not only because it will be alone in countering Iran but because it will also quickly lead to the end of the much heralded but overhyped development of quiet ties between Israel and Gulf states. It has been the large and looming presence of the U.S. standing behind Israel and Arab states that has given them the ability to present a united front against Iran, and while Israel is always going to see Iran as a threat so long as the ayatollahs’ regime is in power, Arab states’ balancing behavior is far more contingent on the presumption of reliable U.S. backing. Those close ties that Israel has so often touted are now in precipitous danger.

Israel will not be so easily or directly left in the lurch by Trump. But anyone still touting Trump as Israel’s 21st-century King Cyrus and as a president who will have Israel’s back through thick and thin is blind to the basic facts. Trump’s treatment of the Kurds is not necessarily a facsimile of how he will treat Israel, but the regional fallout of Trump’s behavior will nevertheless impact Israel as if he had abandoned it just as starkly.

Michael J. Koplow is the policy director of the Washington, D.C.-based Israel Policy Forum. He can be reached at mkoplow@ipforum.org. 

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