Trump Leaves Israel in the Lurch

The president’s precipitous decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria provided many Israelis with a rude awakening.

A Trump supporter during a convention organized by the Israeli branch of the U.S. Republican Party in Jerusalem on October 26, 2016
A Trump supporter during a convention organized by the Israeli branch of the U.S. Republican Party in Jerusalem on October 26, 2016 (Ammar Awad / Reuters)

Ask Israelis what they appreciate about President Donald Trump, and they can tick off a substantial list: the long-sought move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; the abandonment of the much-maligned Iran nuclear deal; the lack of pressure (so far) on Israel to curtail settlement expansion or make concessions to the Palestinians; and the absence of tensions with Israel’s leaders, which plagued the relationship between former President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But dig a bit deeper, and you hear something else, best captured in a phrase used frequently by young Israelis I meet who consider themselves Trump fans: gever-gever, a real man. Something about the Trump style appeals to an Israeli sense of machismo, an appreciation for direct, gut-level expressions of toughness, such a contrast from the more analytical Obama.

Trump’s sudden decision this month to reverse course and announce the withdrawal of the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, though, forced Israelis to recognize, in many cases for the first time, both their policy differences with Trump and the downsides of his stylistic idiosyncrasies. The implications, for Israel’s strategic interests in the region and for its management of its relationship with the United States, are broad.

Start with the way the decision was made. Trump had signaled months ago his preference for a prompt declaration of victory over ISIS and the return of U.S. troops from Syria. But persuaded by his national-security team, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and the special representative for Syria engagement, James Jeffrey, he reversed course. Netanyahu also called for maintaining the U.S. deployment. The presence of U.S. forces meant that Israel did not feel left to manage the threat entirely on its own, or appear to others to be doing so, even as it conducts its ongoing campaign of air strikes in Syria against Iranian military entrenchment.

Trump’s sudden about-face, announced by tweet on December 19, so shocked and upset his own national-security team that Mattis and the special envoy for the counter-ISIS campaign, Brett McGurk, resigned. Netanyahu reportedly received a heads-up in a phone call with Trump two days before the announcement, but failed to dissuade Trump; he was not, in any meaningful sense, consulted. Israel’s tight-lipped statements calling it a “U.S. decision” that would in no way constrain Israel’s own actions betrayed Netanyahu’s unhappiness.

Surprises are bad enough. I know it firsthand, having informed the Israeli government in August 2013 of Obama’s decision to strike Syrian targets in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, only to have Obama pull back to seek congressional approval. In that case, the surprise stung and left lingering region-wide doubts about the willingness of the United States to use military force. But at least then, a plausible policy alternative emerged: an agreement with Russia that led to the removal and destruction of 1,300 tons of Syrian chemical-weapons stocks. Israel endorsed the new approach.

The problem for Israel today, though, goes beyond the surprise. If Obama was too cautious for many Israelis, Trump has now shown them how his approach to foreign policy—impulsive, isolationist, transactional, turning on a dime with no alternative in place—can work against their interests. And Netanyahu—who praised Trump in almost messianic terms and who knows how poorly he responds to criticism—now has few tools at his disposal to object to this policy. Israelis can only shake their heads at the absence of any strategy as they survey the regional fallout.

Take ISIS. By every account, the battle to destroy ISIS is not finished. The removal of U.S. forces will put at risk the gains of the campaign’s first three years, and could facilitate the group’s regeneration. Israel is not threatened by ISIS in an existential sense, but preventing Sunni jihadist terrorists from harassing Israel’s borders and undermining its neighbors is undoubtedly an Israeli interest.

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.

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.

More broadly, they signify a U.S. interest in what happens in Syria and provide a measure of leverage in the diplomacy that will help shape postwar arrangements. Once they are gone, the U.S. voice demanding Iran not be permitted to use Syria as a venue to threaten Israel will weaken. The rest of Trump’s vaunted “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran will weaken along with it. U.S. sanctions remain, but U.S. seriousness is in question. Netanyahu claimed that Obama’s nuclear deal empowered Iranian aggression across the region. Any serious analyst would make the same assertion about Trump’s latest move.

The other major beneficiary of the U.S. withdrawal is Russia, now the unchallenged power in Syria, with influence that radiates out throughout the region. Declining U.S. involvement and increasing Russian dominance empower Russian President Vladimir Putin. When it suits Russia’s interests, he may attempt to constrict Israeli freedom of action against targets in Syria. On cue, Moscow blasted this week’s Israeli strike on Iranian-Hezbollah weapons facilities and the Syrian air-defense units that protect them with the dubious claim that Israeli pilots endangered civilian airliners.

Israel has maintained effective communication and deconfliction with Russia in Syria for three years, but it can expect more such Russian bullying tactics with the United States out of the picture. Israelis who complained that Obama “allowed” Russia to deploy heavily to Syria in 2015 can hardly feel better about Trump’s decision.

A more dominant Russia in Syria means a reinforced Assad regime. That process was happening anyway, much to the chagrin of Israeli strategists and anyone with a moral conscience. But the folding of the U.S. tent cements the outcome. Where Turkey does not wipe out the Kurds, Russian-backed Syrian forces will mop them up. The Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah weapons highway will be disrupted only by Israeli action. Other Arab states, long funders of anti-Assad opposition groups, have given up and are welcoming Syria back to the fold. Syria’s prospective invitation to the Arab League summit, the visit of Assad’s security chief to Cairo, and the reopening of the UAE embassy in Damascus mark Syria’s best week diplomatically since the war began in 2011.

Following Trump’s tweet announcing the U.S. withdrawal, Netanyahu told the Israeli people there was no cause for alarm. In the big picture, he’s right. Israel can and will defend itself against the array of threats it faces. U.S. military assistance to Israel and diplomatic support at the United Nations are not in jeopardy.

But management of the conversation about the region between these two allies is now hobbled. A planned coordination visit to Israel by Mattis was scotched. Multiple conversations with a range of American envoys, premised on the continuation of the U.S. presence in Syria, have proved worthless. Israelis now know the dread of Trump’s Twitter feed that has tormented many other U.S. allies.

And most of all, Israel’s confidence in the robust, muscular backing of the gever-gever in the White House must now be tempered by a new understanding. Trump’s disdain for any American military role in the Middle East, his eagerness to cut deals with his autocratic friends, and his lack of any sense of obligation toward U.S. allies should prepare Israelis for the bitter truth that the second half of Trump’s term could look quite different from the first.