The situation in northern Syria following the American withdrawal is still unfolding, and the possible outcomes are not fully clear. For Israel, the emerging picture is not a strategic disaster, but more of a mixed bag.
Israel benefited from the civil war in Syria that weakened and distracted its enemy in Damascus. Yet the political vacuum allowed Iran to send proxies to help Syrian President Bashar Assad and build a presence in a country sharing a border with Israel. While the civil war is not over yet, Assad has gradually restored his rule in Syria with the help of his Russian ally. Israel has refrained from getting involved in the war and is in no position to influence how it ends.
Yet a stronger Syrian state is not necessarily inimical to Israeli interests. States can do greater damage than non-state military organizations, but they’re also more susceptible to deterrence. Arguably, too, a stronger Assad can better withstand Iranian encroachment. While the old Iran-Syria alliance (since 1979) is not going to dissolve, greater Syrian leeway in this relationship could be useful for Israel.
Astute Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants a stable Assad regime to preserve Russia’s bases in Syria, also seems to favor a diminished Iranian presence and influence in this part of the Levant. Indeed, Putin agreed to turn a blind eye to the Israeli military campaign against Iranian targets and proxies in Syria. It is unlikely that the Russian leader will change this policy as long as Israel does not attempt to destabilize the Assad regime.
The Syrian Kurds were the big losers in this cruel game of international politics. Unfortunately for them, they became dispensable—victims of their own success in defeating Islamic State. Their own experience should have taught them better.
Many Israelis shared a fantasy about the emergence of a friendly Kurdish state in the Middle East. Yet the Kurdish political body is fragmented, and their ambitious aspirations could not be materialized, as stronger actors gradually fill in the political void which allowed the emergence of limited Kurdish autonomy. Even if established, a landlocked Kurdish state would not be able to develop a pro-Israel foreign policy orientation, having to align itself with at least one of its neighbors: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
In addition, a Kurdish state is anathema to Turkey, a strong actor prepared to use force in the pursuit of its national interests.
Is the Turkish military presence in northern Syria and Iraq adverse to Israeli interests? Turkish notions such as “security zones” and “defensible borders” are part of the Israeli strategic vocabulary. In addition, greater Turkish involvement in the Fertile Crescent, a significant deviation from the Kemalist tradition, diverts resources and attention from other issues, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s preoccupation with Israel. Finally, such Turkish activism creates an additional source of friction with Iran.
With the exception of Israel, only Turkey is in a position to balance a rising Iran. Turkey might choose, however, to stick to its historic restraint versus Persia and be a spectator in the Iran-Israel conflict. It might leave Israel to weaken Tehran, which competes with Ankara’s neo-Ottoman and Islamist ambitions for Middle East hegemony.
Iran is pleased with the American exit from northern Syria, and hopes similar withdrawals will take place in Iraq and eventually the Persian Gulf. An emboldened Iran may send its proxies to harass American troops still deployed in the Middle East to reinforce Washington’s isolationist instinct. It has now better access to the planned Shi’ite corridor, but must still face Israel’s military campaign (“the war between the wars”) to prevent its entrenchment in Syria.
Moreover, recent political turmoil in Iraq and Lebanon indicates popular opposition to Iran’s attempts to rule via local militias and its hegemonic project. The prospects for drastic political change in these countries and in Iran are not very good, but the Iranian leadership will have to divert resources to restore quiet to their emerging empire.
The American withdrawal from Syria is part of a broader pattern of weakness, especially in response to Iran. The locals now fear the United States less, although the assassination of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s is a warning that America can still punish the bad guys. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to get out is not totally without merit. The Middle East has become less important for the United States. In addition, Americans are tired of long Mideast wars with little gains.
Yet Trump’s reliance exclusively on economic power as a coercive tool in the Middle East is strategically misguided. The events in northern Syria are a vivid reminder that the use of force is part and parcel of the rules of the game in the Middle East. It is actually the trump card. Moreover, use of force is popular; Assad, Putin and Erdoğan earned accolades at home.
Israel should adapt as quickly as possible to the new circumstances and develop adequate responses to a situation that did not really come as a surprise. Fears that the United States will abandon Israel as it has the Kurds are greatly exaggerated, but nevertheless, Israel should continue to adhere to self-reliance and invest in its military to meet the difficult tests ahead.
Efraim Inbar is the president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.