Israelis Nervous About U.S. Withdrawal From Syria, Fearing Iranian Gains

Israeli tank patrolling border between Israel and Syria. (Getty)
December 24, 2018

The Netanyahu government is projecting calm about President Donald Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, but no one in Israel, from politicians to pundits, thinks it is good news.

Israel’s main fear is that the withdrawal of U.S. forces will create a vacuum into which Iran will expand, affording it greater freedom of action. Iran’s ultimate goal is to build its long-dreamed-of land bridge to the Mediterranean—a corridor stretching through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

That scenario is unacceptable from Israel’s point of view. Since 2017, it has launched over 200 bombing strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, mainly to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining advanced precision missile capabilities.

Noam Amir, defense commentator for Israel’s Channel 20, summed up the general feeling: "It’s a wonderful gift for Putin, a wonderful gift for Assad. And to our great sorrow, it’s a magnificent gift to the Iranians, who are themselves in complete shock that Trump is doing this at all."

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former research division head of IDF military intelligence, similarly warned in Israel’s most widely circulated daily that the White House decision would "open the way to Iran, to transferring equipment by way of land through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. It should definitely worry Israel."

The harshest criticisms came from Netanyahu’s own government, albeit anonymously. A senior minister in Israel’s government called the American withdrawal "a spoiled opportunity, because Russia has been demanding for a long time that the U.S. pull its forces out of Syria. It would have been possible to demand of the Russians the pullout of Iranian forces from Syria, at least partially, in exchange for American forces leaving."

An anonymous senior diplomatic official on Israel’s Channel 10 was still less sparing. "Trump threw us under the wheels of the half-track of the Russian army, the one that transfers weapons to Syria and Hezbollah."

"This step doesn’t help Israel. It strengthens Erdogan, an anti-Semitic war criminal who carries out massacres of the Kurdish people," Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said on the record. She tempered her criticism by adding that "Donald Trump is a great friend of Israel, and this administration is I think the friendliest administration there’s ever been."

Most Israelis agree that the biggest losers are the Kurds, who have successfully fought off ISIS in Syria’s northeast with American support.

"The greatest damage from an American exit is first and foremost the Kurds, who the Americans cooperated with the whole way," Kupperwasser said. "The Turks understand this as an opportunity to close accounts with the Kurds, and the Kurds are rightly worried."

Unfortunately, it does not appear Israel can do much to help them.

The Kurds themselves called Trump’s decision "a complete betrayal." Their umbrella group, the Syrian Democratic Forces, said that despite Trump’s claim, "The war against ISIS in Syria isn’t over and the American retreat will create a military vacuum in the area."

Trump was not wrong when he said ISIS had been defeated, a fact even National Security Advisor John Bolton had to admit while listening in to the pivotal conversation between Trump and Erdogan, if reports about that phone call are accurate.

However, warnings that ISIS could return are not far-fetched, especially as the Kurds have said they may need to release 3,200 captured fighters as part of a general retreat to avoid clashing with the Turks. Israeli media describes these ISIS fighters as extreme Islamists who could very well serve as the nucleus for a revival of the organization.

Still, neither Russia nor Turkey wants a revival of ISIS and so will work to prevent it. Perhaps that is the reason Israeli analysts are not emphasizing this issue.

The greatest threat may be a resurgent Syria. Today, Israel still flies its sorties to bomb Iranian targets on Syrian soil. But as Channel 20’s Noam Amir warned in his assessment, "The more Syria becomes a state—and the retreat of the Americans makes it more of a state—the more Israel’s range of action shrinks until eventually it’ll be closed off completely."

A revived Syria, tight with Iran, which helped it take back the country during its civil war—that may be what paves the way to cementing the land bridge Israel so fears.

Published under: Iran , Israel