January 19, 2019

The Only Middle East Strategy Worth Pursuing

“President Trump’s surprise December 19 announcement of an immediate withdrawal of American forces from Syria hit some Israelis like a sucker punch. “With this withdrawal, the United States abandons Syria and leaves Israel alone,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former national-security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. While conceding that “the effect of the U.S. decision is primarily psychological and diplomatic,” Amidror continued: “In those arenas, this is a very significant decision.” Subsequent reports to the effect that the drawdown of forces will be slower than originally announced and coordinated with America’s allies have softened the blow, but the shock still remains.

In retrospect, the announcement shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, Trump has never hidden his conviction that extended military operations in the Middle East are futile. He campaigned on the theme in 2016 and then returned to it last April. The United States, he declared then, had “spent $7 trillion in the Middle East in the last seven years. We get nothing out of it, nothing.” To this general observation, he added a specific promise: “We’ll be coming out of Syria . . . very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.”

In the intervening months, however, the president’s top advisers seemed to suggest that the withdrawal would never happen. “We’re not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders, and that includes Iranian proxies and militias,” said National Security Adviser John Bolton last September. Given Bolton’s proximity to the president, the promise sounded authoritative.

The shock in Israel, then, was understandable, and it quickly gave way to related fears. Trump’s Syria decision is clearly part of a larger effort that includes patching up American relations with Turkey, a goal that leaves Israelis decidedly cold. For over a decade, Jerusalem’s relations with Turkey have been abysmal, with no prospect of improvement on the horizon. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, who aligns with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world, would appear to have made hostility to Israel an enduring part of his political persona. To make matters worse, the American withdrawal will likely entail a downgrading of U.S. relations with the Syrian Kurdish forces that have aided the United States in the fight against Islamic State.”

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