President Trump cites the Jewish state—and not American security—as a reason for U-turn on declared Syria policy
United States President Donald Trump partially walked back his avowed intent to immediately withdraw all American forces from Syria, telling CBS News that, “we’re going to be there and we’re going to be staying—we have to protect Israel, we have to protect other things.”
Among those “other things” is the seemingly increasingly understated U.S. interest of ensuring through military might and deterrence a modicum of stability in a volatile oil-rich region, a necessity underpinning Washington’s longstanding Middle East defense doctrine upon which the security of the American people depends.
Observers note that it is politically expedient for President Trump to justify maintaining soldiers in Syria by invoking Israel, irrespective of the risk of perpetuating the canard that Americans stationed in the region are operating solely on behalf of the Jewish state. Meanwhile, safeguarding vital, albeit authoritarian, American allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan is notably omitted from the related public discourse despite these regimes being vastly more unstable than Israel and lacking the capabilities to defend themselves by themselves.
“This isn’t the first time President Trump has singled out Israel on the topic of Syria, as he did so during the summit last year with [his Russian counterpart Vladimir] Putin,” Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center, explained to The Media Line. “His fundamental misunderstanding of regional complexities makes him latch onto Israel, as the president [cannot grasp the intricacies of] Iran’s activities; the Sunni-Shiite divide [that is fueling conflicts]; and the fact that Moscow has been allowed to re-establish itself in the Middle East after 40 years of American dominance.
“While the deployment of 2,000 U.S. troops is relatively unimpressive,” Dr. Freilich elaborated, “this nevertheless made things considerably harder for the Iranians and therefore had a disproportionate effect. It is nice that the president recognizes Israel’s security needs, but emphasizing this uniquely is not necessarily a good thing.”
Indeed, the Israeli army over the past two years struck thousands of Iranian assets in Syria and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu repeatedly has vowed to prevent Tehran from creating another forward-operating base across the northern border from which to launch attacks—even if this means defying Russia, the major player in the Syrian war since intervening on behalf of the Assad regime more than three years ago.
Granted it is no secret that Jerusalem has lobbied the White House to preserve, at the very least, a military presence at the al-Tanf base in southern Syria—which straddles the Jordanian and Iraqi borders—in order to help thwart Iran’s ongoing attempt to establish a contiguous land corridor stretching from Tehran to Lebanon. This so-called “Shiite Crescent” would make it more difficult for Israel to impede the Islamic Republic’s build-up in countries like Iraq and Syria and the transfer of advanced weaponry to its Shiite underling Hizbullah.
However, it is hard to fathom that Israeli appeals alone could account for the widespread opposition within Congress and the Pentagon to President Trump’s prospective withdrawal, or have prompted the resignations of his defense minister and head of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.
“The retention of troops in Syria is required for many reasons and perhaps [President Trump] chose to mention Israel off the top of his head or as a way to mollify critics within his own [political] party. It is conceivable that doing so could perpetuate [falsehoods], but even many Democrats were against the sudden decision,” Lenny Ben-David, a former high-ranking diplomat at Israel’s Embassy in Washington who currently is affiliated with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told The Media Line.
“[Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and [National Security Adviser John] Bolton [who both recently met with Netanyahu] see the need for U.S. troops to be in Syria, period. The fact of the matter is that ISIS is not yet dead and the military presence is needed for this too.”
Whereas the American leader declared the terrorist group defeated—the pretext for announcing the pull-out—Islamic State has perpetrated numerous attacks in the last few weeks and many are warning that the removal of a U.S. fighting force from Syria could lead to the organization’s re-emergence. Moreover, the move is difficult to reconcile with President Trump’s central foreign goal of rolling back Iranian expansionism, one of the primary reasons cited for his nixing of the 2015 nuclear accord.
Given these are shared concerns, it may behoove Jerusalem to highlight the positive impact President Trump’s shifting Syria policy stands to have not only on the Jewish state but also on Sunni Muslim nations.
And, foremost, on Washington’s continued ability to influence the outcome of events that directly affect U.S. national security.