(February 19, 2019 / JNS) A decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to pull some 2,000 American special force troops from eastern Syria will provide a boost to Russia and Iran, but Israel should not play a prominent role in urging Washington to reconsider, Israeli analysts have said.
Lt. Col. (res.) Ron Tira, a reservist at the Israel Air Force’s Campaign Planning Department, who served as a section head at the air force’s Intelligence Division, told JNS that the withdrawal affects direct American interests, not just Israelis ones.
Key questions, such as whether the United States wants “a counterweight to the Russian presence in the Middle East,” as well as “America’s commitment to the welfare of the Kurds, who have been instrumental in fighting ISIS,” are all raised by Trump’s decision, he said.
“Is the U.S. interested in holding bargaining chips vis-à-vis the Russians, or preventing a slaughter of the Kurds after the U.S. encouraged them to take an independent stance, or blocking Iran in the regional—not just the Israeli—context? And blocking Turkish political Islam?” posed Tira.
Operationally, he argued, the withdrawal is not very significant, though it will make it somewhat easier for Iran to develop land routes for the movement of armed forces and weapons into the heart of Syria from Iraq.
“The American forces in eastern Syria were fairly significant in blocking the Iranian land routes and even acted against them kinetically. An American withdrawal will decrease constraints on Iran’s ability to develop and activate the land routes,” said Tira.
Strategically, however, the significance of an American exit is greater, he argued. “An American presence on Syrian soil leaves Syria as an open issue without final stabilization. One cannot say that the war in Syria is over and that we have moved to the end stage when the American military is [still] in possession of Syrian territory—regardless of the size of the force or the size of the territory it holds. This is an important strategic bargaining chip when dealing with Russia and Iran,” said Tira.
Keeping the troop presence would obligate both Russia and Iran to seek an arrangement with the United States, giving Washington leverage that it could use to demand a withdrawal “of the quality Iranian military forces from Syria,” he stated.
“Even from a purely American perspective, the military presence in Syria formed a chip vis-à-vis the Russians, as part of a global tapestry of open issues, ranging from the Baltics, the [American] missile defense system in Poland [which Russia opposes], the Crimea and the Ukrainian question, and open issues surrounding Asia and Georgia,” said Tira, outlining the global power competition between Moscow and Washington that Syria could have been a part of.
An American withdrawal from Syria means “volunteering to give up on this chip vis-à-vis the Russians and Iranians, without getting anything back, and this is highly strange,” said the IAF reservist. “In addition, the military presence in Syria was not significantly costly for the U.S. In other words, this is purposelessly giving up on a strategic chip, and there is nothing stopping the U.S. from continuing to hold on to it.”
The withdrawal’s effect ‘is mostly psychological’
Professor Eyal Zisser, a top Israeli Syria expert at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told JNS that Israel is not interested in generating an image of a state that “America’s sons shed blood for, and therefore, Israel is remaining silent over this.”
Israel could pass along messages via Arab states that it is in touch with, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, or at most highlight the dangers to America’s own direct interests from a Syria withdrawal, Zisser told JNS.
In terms of actual effect on the ground, he argued, “the importance of the maneuver is foremost psychological. Since Israel’s deterrence and power rely on American support, as soon as someone doubts America’s commitment to Israel—a problem arises.”
In addition, he cautioned, the American withdrawal acts as an encouragement to Iran, “and this is also something that is undesirable.”
On the ground, however, the United States did little to block Iran in Syria, he noted. “The U.S. was deterred from confronting Iran in Syria, due to a desire to avoid upsetting the Shi’ites in Iraq,” he argued. As a result, an American exit from Syria will not have major consequences on the ground, he said.
In recent days, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead, former head of the Diplomatic-Security Bureau at the Defense Ministry, weighed in on the issue as well.
Gilead, who today heads the Institute for Policy and Strategy in Herzliya, said at a conference that the “U.S. has a dominant standing among Sunni [Arab] powers,” adding that “I think we have to do everything that we can to support U.S. dominancy. American ideas of leaving the area—I think we must resist them.”
He noted that Israel must state its position cautiously since it’s up to Washington to “judge alone. … But we can say what we think.”
Gilead then went on to deliver a stark warning, saying that “Trump’s decision to leave Syria has severe implications for us. It’s not that 2,000 American soldiers uphold our security. We don’t use American soldiers.”
Rather, it’s the fact that such elite soldiers were in “very sensitive areas in the region,” he said. “They help the Kurds—I cannot imagine the current achievements against ISIS without the Kurds,” he said.
Without U.S. protection of the Kurds, Turkey could expand into Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan harbors “all kinds of ambitions that are very dangerous. The U.S. can restrain him,” said Gilead.
“At the end of the day, an Iranian takeover of Syria is intolerable from our perspective,” he cautioned. For Israel, the decision holds significance because it is about the power that America will have to influence the regional order.
“We have to have an independent, determined policy, fully coordinated with the U.S., and maintain dialogue with Russia, stated Gilead. “In that order of priority.”