(January 3, 2019 / JNS) Over the past week, U.S. President Donald Trump has issued shifting positions on the timeline regarding last month’s announcement that the United States will withdraw troops from Syria, as well as his views on the threat of Iran.
Many U.S. officials and experts has expressed concern over Trump’s shifting stances on the Syria pullout, which they contend may embolden regional foes like Iran, Russia and Turkey, while leaving allies like Israel and the Kurds exposed to greater threats.
At the end of a meeting with his Cabinet on Wednesday, Trump appeared to reignited these concerns when he said: “Iran is pulling people out of Syria, but they can frankly do whatever they want there.”
At the same time, Trump declined to answer a question about what the withdrawal timeline will be, only to say that it will be “over a period of time.”
Reportedly, troops will leave over four months as opposed to an initial 30-day period, though Trump said, “I don’t know, somebody said four months, but I didn’t say that either.”
“We want to protect the Kurds, but I don’t want to be in Syria forever,” he added. “It’s sand and it’s death.”
Trump also defended his record on confronting Iran, saying that the two sets of recent sanctions he has activated have put tremendous pressure on the regime.
“Iran was going to take over everything and destroy Israel while they’re at it. Iran is a much different country right now,” said Trump. “They’re having riots every week in every country. I’d love to negotiate with Iran … but Iran is a much different country right now.”
Dore Gold, a former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations, downplayed any concerns regarding Trump’s commitment to confront Iran.
“I believe President Trump is concerned with Iranian aggression across the Middle East including in Syria,” Gold told JNS. “In his mind, he has begun to alter Iran’s calculus by withdrawing from the terrible Iran nuclear agreement and the renewal of U.S. sanctions.”
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States would stand by its commitment to Israel’s security despite the planned withdrawal. “The decision by the president on Syria in no way changes anything that this administration is working on alongside Israel,” he said.
Washington-based geopolitical strategist and diplomacy consultant John Sitilides agreed with Gold.
“The context of the president’s remarks emphasizes that until 2016, Iran was on track towards becoming a hegemonic power in the Middle East,” he told JNS. “The administration’s policies over the past 24 months, leading with the withdrawal from the nonbinding nuclear arrangement, has set back Iran’s aggressive regional ambitions significantly.”
Emily Landau, a senior research fellow at INSS and head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program, told JNS that Trump’s comments on Iran in Syria were taken out of context.
“Having listened to his full statement (although it was quite confused), it seems that the point the president was trying to make is that Iran has been weakened since he began his term, and is leaving Syria. In this sense, it doesn’t seem that the administration is backing away from its pressure campaign against Iran. But certainly there is a need for more statements in the vein of what Pompeo said to Netanyahu, in order to underscore that this is in fact the case.”
Israel ‘concerned’ with Iranian buildup in Syria
Gold said that Israel’s main concern is with Iran’s goal of expanding its bases across the region.
“Israel is still concerned with Iran’s determination to build up for itself a network of bases that will eventually host a Shi’ite expeditionary force from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, all under Iranian command,” he said. “That force could reach 100,000 to 150,000 troops.”
“It will also be backed up by Iranian rockets which are being upgraded with new, highly accurate guidance systems,” added Gold. “Defeating this emerging threat to the Middle East requires U.S. leadership at the macro level, as exemplified by the steps that President Trump has taken, backed by the measures being adopted by Israel and America’s Sunni Arab allies.”
Trump said last week that he does not believe pulling U.S. forces out of Syria would endanger Israel.
“Well, I don’t see it. I spoke with Bibi [Netanyahu],” he said. “I told Bibi. And, you know, we give Israel $4.5 billion a year. And they’re doing very well defending themselves, if you take a look … So that’s the way it is.”
However, the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin gave Trump anything but the benefit of the doubt on Syria.
“Trump sees a three-dimensional world in two dimensions,” he said. “He doesn’t seem to understand the second-order effects of his actions nor does he understand that when ideology motivates foes, simply withdrawing cannot end conflict but instead just brings it closer.”
“Trump’s closest national security advisors, [U.S. National Security Advisor John] Bolton and Pompeo, certainly see how disastrous such a move would be and will seek to slow down the withdrawal if not reverse it,” he continued.
According to a report in The Washington Post, Bolton and Pompeo drafted a plan late last fall regarding an expanded U.S. mission in Syria to counter Iran. This memo committed the United States to a “longer-term presence in Syria that included goals of an enduring defeat of the Islamic State, a political transition and the expulsion of Iran.”
However, Trump never signed the memo and had told aides for months that he wanted out of Syria.
“That Iran strategy was never endorsed by the president,” said a U.S. official, The Washington Post reported.
“If there’s one thing this episode proves, it is that Trump has paramount influence within the Trump administration despite the wishful thinking of pretty much every pundit in Washington,” said Rubin.
According to INSS’s Landau, the direct impact of removing troops from Syria is minor, but the message of the U.S. leaving is a “serious one” especially to Russia and Iran.
“Israel says it will continue to attack when needed to stop Iran’s aggression and weapons transfers, and has carried out an attack after Trump’s announcement, and the Trump administration will no doubt continue to support Israel in this campaign,” she said.
“But lack of U.S. presence means new rules of the game and in this period of instability, there is a danger of escalation, including with Russia. This makes Israel’s task that much more difficult. Moreover, U.S. troops were hindering Iran’s ability to complete a land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean, and removal of the American presence will give Iran more freedom in this respect as well.”
On Thursday, Pompeo said that America can continue to counter the Islamic State and Iran in Syria, even without troops on the ground.
“The counter-Iran campaign continues,” Pompeo told Newsmax. “We’ll do all of those things. … We will simply do it at a time when the American forces have departed Syria.”
Former State Department official David Pollock said Trump believes that Iran can be dealt with through sanctions, while allowing Israel to confront Iran militarily. “I think he does care about stopping Iran, and was simply describing the reality rather than endorsing it,” he said.
“At the same time, he thinks the main U.S. tool against Iran is sanctions, plus some psychological warfare, but not military action,” continued Pollock. “Because he and Pompeo and Bolton want Israel to deal militarily with Iran in Syria.”