(December 28, 2018 / JNS) The Israel Air Force carried out airstrikes on Tuesday night against a series of targets involving Iranian weapons’ transfers to Hezbollah, as well as several senior members of the terror organization. Syrian air defenses reportedly fired 30 anti-aircraft missiles in response, allegedly placing a number of civilian airliners in danger. Russia and Lebanon both blamed Israel for endangering the airliners.
This comes amid the sudden announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that he is pulling American troops out of Syria. This appears to endanger Israel, as Iran now has one less challenge to face in its effort to establish a land corridor stretching between Iran and the Mediterranean Sea, with a terror network that extends across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel would step up its efforts—with full support from Washington—to counter Iranian aggression in the wake of U.S. withdrawal. Trump doesn’t seem worried. He insisted on Wednesday, during a surprise visit to Iraq, that Israel is perfectly capable of defending itself. With America withdrawing from Syria, that country now falls prey to Iran, Russia, Turkey, Lebanon, Hezbollah and other players seeking to control lucrative territory. This ostensibly sends a bad message to America’s allies, including Israel.
Eytan Gilboa, professor and director of the Center for International Communication at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, as well as a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, told JNS that two elements are involved in the U.S. decision. The first is operational. He said he believes this move will encourage ISIS, Iran and even Russia to a certain extent to increase their efforts to dominate Syria.
“The message is the U.S. is leaving the Middle East. But this is not the main issue. The problem is that Syria will be seen as deserted for Russian and Iranian domination. So it could encourage both Iran and also Islamic State. The war there is not over yet,” he warned.
Gilboa said that there is a “contradiction here in terms of the U.S. approach to Iran. The U.S. criticized Iran and imposed harsh sanctions, but in Syria it allows the government to become a dominant power.”
He continued, saying “Trump is trying hard to re-establish relations with Sunni Arab countries as part of U.S. efforts to re-establish American influence in the region and confront Iran. Over the last few years, these countries felt abandoned by the Obama administration. Now, the same feeling may emerge in that they will feel they cannot trust the United States.”
The second element and most important effect, according to Gilboa, is psychological. If the United States is seen as the weak power in the region, then it affects Israel. “When the U.S. is seen as strong, Israel is seen as strong. When the U.S. is perceived as weak, Israel is also perceived as weak,” he said.
Gilboa argues that the U.S. pullout confirms the feeling for those who believe that Trump is an isolationist. “He does not want America to be influential in the world. He says he wants to make America great again, but only on domestic terms. This is an American trait since World War II. It declares a mission, and when the mission is achieved, they go home.”
Gilboa said this course of action is simplistic because he believes that America did not complete its mission in Syria since ISIS is still there.
“It is the message—a psychological communications message—that you send that you are not involved, that you do not care. This is a bad message to all American allies,” he said. “South Korea, Japan or Persian Gulf countries will ask themselves, ‘How much can we rely on American security assurances?’ ”
‘Serious implications for the Middle East and the world’
Mordechai Kedar, a research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a leading scholar on Arab culture, told JNS that Syrian President Bashar Assad “now wants to get rid of what remains from ISIS to subjugate the northeast, to solve some problems with the Druze in the south, and as long as the Russians are behind him physically, he can feel more comfortable. Assad is viewed as the least evil. As evil as he is, nobody wants ISIS or ISIS-like elements to take over Syria. He is there because he has the power. You have to deal with him. You can’t ignore him.”
According to Eldad Shavit, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, the U.S. decision “does not harm Israel’s ability to attack Syria. Even before the American decision, Israel acted in accordance with its interests against the Iranian presence in Syria. The main factor affecting this maneuvering space is Russia’s position. Politically, the American decision has two central implications.”
The first, Shavit told JNS, is that “the United States leaves the arena entirely to the Russians and loses a bargaining chip for future discussions on the political settlement. The decision will strengthen Iran’s motivation to continue its efforts to establish itself in Syria.”
The second, he said, is that “even if the United States still has interests in the region, its conduct in Syria and its response to the [Jamal] Khashoggi murder weakened its impact and its room to maneuver with respect to existing challenges. This, in turn, leaves its allies with questions about the ability of the U.S. administration to back up its policies, while increasing the motivation of elements that have already been working for some time to exploit the administration’s hesitation in order to strengthen their own hold and influence.”
Gilboa warned that “this has serious implications for the Middle East and the world,” and raises questions over how it will be interpreted by both rivals and allies.
“It will challenge Israel to be more forceful in its activity,” he said. The pullout is “a mistake and a wrong move, and contradicts American strategy on Iran.”