Kori Schake: Trump just messed up the one thing he did better than Obama
And who persuaded Trump to make the ill-advised move? None other than Netanyahu’s regional nemesis, the Israel-bashing Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Netanyahu has seemed unconcerned as Trump cozied up to the international club of autocrats—Putin, Orbán, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Mohammed bin Salman—and has even taken a swim in the same pool. Now he sees what happens when Trump strikes a deal with the local Islamist member of this club, who harbors ambitions for regional leadership. Obama may have hung in too long with Erdogan as he dismantled Turkish democracy. But Trump, knowing who Erdogan really is from the start, sees it as no impediment to doing deals. A Trump-Erdogan bromance is the stuff of Netanyahu’s nightmares.
The first victims of Erdogan’s empowerment, of course, will not be Israelis. They will be Kurds. Kurdish fighters—who make up the Syrian Democratic Forces (including, it must be acknowledged, some affiliated with the anti-Turkish terrorist group the PKK)—have led the battle on the ground against ISIS, liberating city after city in northeastern Syria. With no U.S. troops to coordinate with and protect them, they will be left to Erdogan’s tender mercies.
Israelis see the Kurds—a moderate, pro-Western, Muslim community that eschews anti-Israel sentiment, and with whom Israel has worked quietly—as exactly the kind of element that the Middle East needs more of. They constantly press for more American support for the Kurds. Israel, against American wishes, encouraged the Kurds of northern Iraq in their ill-advised independence referendum of 2017. For Israel, the U.S. abandonment of the Kurds represents both a strategic and an emotional blow.
The blow is that much more painful for what it says about U.S. staying power in the Middle East. This concern did not originate with Trump, of course. Obama, too, was criticized by Israelis for withdrawing troops from Iraq, for failing to strike Syria in response to chemical-weapons use, and for his perceived reluctance to use force against Iran’s nuclear program. But Trump, the gever-gever, Israelis hoped, would reverse the trend. Instead, Trump is doubling down on reducing U.S. involvement in the Middle East in an even more brutal fashion: bashing regional allies as freeloaders, demanding payment for U.S. protection, and loudly declaiming against any plausible logic for a U.S. military presence in the region. America’s friends, including Israel, feel a chill wind at such talk.
Conor Friedersdorf: What the Syria hawks refuse to acknowledge
Meanwhile, its adversaries take heart. The main source of Israel’s concern in Syria is the continuous effort by Iran to transfer ever more sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to deploy its own forces and weapons against Israel from Syria. U.S. troops in eastern Syria have not been directly involved in Israel’s campaign against such threats, but their presence denies Iran access to certain locations in Syria, including the key border-crossing between Syria and Iraq at al-Tanf.