The Trump Administration and Syria

Update from AIJAC

 

Update 01/19 #01

On Dec. 19, US President Donald Trump announced in a tweet, latter confirmed in public statements by other Administration spokespeople, that he would be withdrawing US forces from Syria, as well as reducing American forces in Afghanistan. While Trump reportedly briefed Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu beforehand on the withdrawal, he caused further concern both inside and outside Israel when he subsequently said that Iran, whose presence in Syria is a major worry for Jerusalem, can “do whatever they want” in Syria. Administration spokespersons later seem to suggest that there was “no timeline” on the US plans to withdraw its forces after early suggestions withdrawal could take only a few weeks.

This Update is devoted to analysis of the changing US policy in Syria, and its implications for Israel and the region.

We lead with a critical take on the US decision from American defence analyst Shoshana Bryan. She argues that while the US troops were ostensibly sent to Syria to fight Islamic State, as Trump noted, they have also served to help disengage Iran from Syria and protect allied Kurdish forces in the country. She argues that to “declare victory and get out” in Syria will not be a victory at all if it empowers Russian, Iranian and Turkish forces – not to mention the murderous Assad regime. For her full argument, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a controversial and contrary view from American academic and former New Republic publisher Martin Peretz. Peretz argues that American withdrawal is less significant than it appears because US policy toward Syria over the past 10 years, particularly under the Obama Administration, has left the US largely impotent in Syria despite the modest troop contingent sent there. While he says Trump’s Syria move was clumsy, it may have only very limited effect given this reality, and the US needs to learn the lessons of the last ten years and treat Iran, Russia and the Assad regime as its principal adversaries in the area. For all that Peretz has to say,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, Michael Herzog, a retired Israeli brigadier general now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, looks at the public and private Israeli reaction to the American announcement of a withdrawal from Syria. He says while Israel has publicly been lukewarm on the American announcement, security circles see it both as further evidence of a growing trend of American retreat from the region, and as a blow to Israel’s effort to confront what it perceived as the biggest threat its national security, Iran’s regional and nuclear ambitions. He looks at the tactical and strategic elements of Israeli concerns about increased Iranian freedom of action in Syria, as well as what Israel can do to react to the US move – including continuing to strike Iranian targets in Syria, negotiating with the US for guarantees and assistance, and also seeking understandings with Russia. For Herzog’s valuable analysis in full, CLICK HERE. More expert views on the Israel reaction to the US Syria withdrawal has been collected by the Carnegie Institute’s Middle East centre.

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Trump Declares Victory in Syria Too Soon

Shoshana Bryen American Thinker, December 21, 2018
Map depicting current US deployments in Syria. 

In the midst of the Vietnam War, Sen. George Aiken is reported to have said, “Let’s just declare victory and get out.”  In October, President Donald Trump did “declare victory” over ISIS.  “I want to get out,” the president said.  “I want to bring our troops back home.  I want to start rebuilding our nation.”

This week, it was announced that our 2,000 or so troops would be pulled out.  Job done, go home, right?

There was a bit of a hedge by the Pentagon.  Chief spokesperson Dana White said the campaign against ISIS is “not over,” but “we have started the process of returning U.S. troops home from Syria as we transition to the next phase of the campaign.  We will continue working with our partners and allies to defeat ISIS wherever it operates.”

OK, still, we’re pretty much done, right?  In the narrowest sense, perhaps, although ISIS remains a regional scourge.  But it raises the question of what to do when your war aims to change in the middle of the war.  The defeat of ISIS was, clearly, the first American goal.  We were not involved in the Syrian civil war and not planning to be.  So American forces took on what appeared to be a limited job.  But nothing is limited in the Middle East.

By design or default, United States forces were serving two other functions.  In September, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton made the case for Iran’s continued presence in Syria creating instability that presented a strategic threat to American interests in the region – and would allow Iran to control the “Shiite Crescent” from Iran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea.

The U.S. had hoped Russia would help disengage Iran.  Russia declined, leaving Washington to figure out how to block the Iranians on their march.  One way was to support Kurdish forces that presently hold ground amounting to about 30 percent of Syrian territory.  They stretch along the Turkish border in the north, to and along the Iraqi border in the east.  Syrian Sunni rebels – including jihadists as well as secular Sunnis and allies of Turkey – hold territory in the north, but farther to the west.

US Troops in Syria have been doing more than simply fighting ISIS.

Kurdish groups in Iraq and in Syria have been America’s most reliable ally.  Fighting Saddam, fighting ISIS, rescuing Yazidis in Sinjar, avoiding radicalization, and having relations with Israel, Kurds are, perhaps, the most forward-thinking group in the region.  Our support is physical; financial; and, perhaps most important, a warning to others that the Kurds have powerful friends.

America’s support for the Kurds – America’s other function in Syria – is what presents the problem.

Turkey considers all Kurds terrorists and has instigated battles against their Syrian territory from inside Turkey as well as from inside Syria.  Turkish forces have been careful not to involve American troops.  Mostly.  But according to the Army Times, Turkey has been increasingly belligerent, raising the odds of a U.S.-Turkey clash.  That would be a military engagement between two members of NATO – an engagement that could have ramifications well beyond the immediate region.

America’s relations with Turkey have been contentious at best, and not only over the Kurds.  Turkey’s growing closeness with Russia and Iran (its two historic enemies), its increasingly heavy-handed tactics at home against journalists and regime opponents – including kidnapping some from Europe, its support for Hamas, and rhetoric against Israel – have made it a difficult member of NATO, to say the least.

The contents of President Trump’s phone call with Turkish president Erdoğan on Wednesday are not public, but it was at the end of that call that the president made a point of the troop withdrawal.  It is hard to avoid the uncomfortable thought that the United States agreed to open the way for Iran to reach the Mediterranean Sea by abandoning our Kurdish allies for a somewhat less truculent Turkey.

But isn’t it right for President Trump to do what he said he would do?

OK.  So bring the troops home from Afghanistan, where American soldiers have been for 17 years, incurring nearly 2,500 American and more than 360,000 Afghan deaths (not to mention thousands of long-term injuries) and spending nearly $1 trillion in U.S. funds in the vain hope that a corrupt, secular-ish government in Kabul could make “peace” with its cousin, the jihadist Taliban revolutionary army harbored in Pakistan and funded by Iran.  Coming home from there would make sense.  The Afghan civil war is not our war, nor is there a broader strategic interest there.  Yes, it may again become a haven for people who want to kill us.  But so could any country in the region, most of the Middle East, and much of Africa.  Whether they do or they don’t is more a matter of Iranian involvement than anything else.

This brings us back to Iran.

It is not our job to occupy all the countries that may harbor those who seek to do us ill.  But to offer Russia, Iran, and Turkey – not to mention Syria’s war criminal president, Bashar Assad – a “victory” at the expense of Sunni Syrians and our Kurdish allies is not, in Aiken’s words, a victory at all.

Shoshana Bryen is Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Centre in Washington and a leading specialist in U.S. defense policy and Middle East affairs.

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Holding Obama Accountable for Syria

And why Trump’s military pullout represents not a new direction in foreign affairs but a coarse coda to a decade of institutional error

By Martin Peretz

Tablet, January 10, 2019

Like so much else in the last two years, the three-week political Sturm und Drang over American troops’ withdrawal from Syria says less about a fissuring present and more about a fractured past. Donald Trump’s now-modified withdrawal order (4 months, not 30 days, unless he changes his mind again) was another sloppy policy move, but one that’s widely misunderstood. Media chatter aside, Trump’s pullout represents not a new direction in foreign affairs but a coarse coda to a decade of institutional error that we need to understand before we can repair.

The central fact behind the withdrawal has been often stated but never explained. There were between 2,000 and 4,000 non-combat-assigned troops in the region, so why yank them out now? And that’s exactly the point. No matter the proximate cause behind Trump’s decision—the conversation with Erdogan, an isolationist sop to his base, an impulse move—keeping or leaving the troops made absolutely no difference in the bigger scheme.

An American patrol in Syria – but were there ever enough of them to make a significant difference in the bigger strategic picture?

It made no difference for a simple reason. The chips had already fallen between 2009 and 2015, when the Obama Administration executed its post-Bush pivot toward Iran and its regional proxy, Syria, and away from America’s allies in the region for 30 years: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. This is the situation Trump inherited, and Trump is not a fixer, he’s a canary in the coalmine. As with “build the wall” and “drain the swamp,” his slogan about Syria—“It’s yours, I’m leaving”—isn’t a pivot, it’s an epitaph. He doesn’t know how to fix our crises, and he doesn’t care. His only purpose is reactionary: to call the crises what they are and point a finger at the people who made them this way.

Which brings us to James Mattis and Brett McGurk, key creators of our Syria predicament, whose resignations over Trump’s decision made them the latest symptoms of a trend wherein makers of problems that created Trump become lauded defenders of the system that opposes him.

McGurk, a career diplomat, was Barack Obama’s appointee as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran and then as Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State. As such, he was responsible for carrying out the then-president’s regional strategy—determined by Obama and finessed by Rob Malley, head of the National Security Council’s Middle East Desk—wherein the missions of combating Bashar Al-Assad and fighting ISIS were folded into Obama’s main foreign policy ambition, the since-repudiated Iran nuclear agreement of 2015.

Mattis, the head of the United States Central Command under Obama and Secretary of Defense under Trump, was slightly more hawkish than Obama but still an institutionalist who saw his role in the Trump era as preserving the status quo. That status quo, left over from Obama, was to sweep the surfaces: avoid a confrontation with Iran, which supported Assad, and make space for Iran’s ally Russia, which also supported Assad, to tamp down the Syrian Civil War, root out the obviously disruptive regional actor— ISIS—and keep the “peace.”


Trump Administration officials Brett McGurk (top) and James Mattis (bottom), who resigned over the shift in Syria policy, both bear some responsibility for past policies that led to the current unwinnable situation in Syria according to Peretz.

What did this maintenance act mean in practice?

It meant keeping U.S. soldiers in Syria to support vetted Syrian opposition groups that were forbidden to engage any violent element except ISIS: practically, preventing them from focusing on the main reason ISIS exists in Syria at all—Assad and the extremist resistance he engenders. A supplement to this strategy was partnering with the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria that has worked with Assad and, now, will likely want to negotiate an arrangement with the Assad regime which will see the regime return to the areas currently in Kurdish hands.

It also meant refusing to formulate a serious response to Assad’s chemical weapons attack on civilians in April 2018.  Surely, with prompting from Mattis, Trump could have been moved to shape a coherent anti-Syria strategy consistent with his urge to marginalize Iran: hit the Ayatollah by pressing Assad. Instead, despite extensive evidence that a nerve agent was used, Mattis pushed against intervention, and the result was a watered-down show of force that deterred Assad not at all.

Further, it meant tacitly allowing Iran to maintain control in Lebanon by backing the Iranian-influenced, order-oriented, do-nothing Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). This was the Mattis-McGurk game plan: under the pretext of “preserving Lebanon’s stability,” and of turning the LAF into a “partner in the war on ISIS,” they would back the status quo in Beirut—an Iranian-friendly army. By backing this status quo, they gave carte blanche to Hezbollah, the Iranian backed terrorist group. Armed with advanced weaponry, Hezbollah keeps Lebanon in disorder and menaces Israel, further destabilizing the region.

Finally, on the eastern border with Syria, in Iraq, it meant delivering resources to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) to prosecute the anti-ISIS campaign, meaning that the U.S. anti-ISIS mission in Syria ended up empowering the Iranians in both Lebanon (via the LAF and Hezbollah)  and Iraq (via the IRGC). Since Syria is an Iranian ally, and both are Russian clients, this means that Russia’s influence now extends from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

All of this is what McGurk helped design under Obama and Mattis acquiesced to under Trump, and the results are both tragic and frightening. 500,000 Syrians have been killed, 5 million made refugees within the country and 6 million outside it. Beirut remains a party town but is governed by a Shia militia. A threatened Saudi Arabia wages a costly war in Yemen against Iran’s proxies there that has put 8 million people at risk of starvation. Iran is not only a murderous tyranny on the cusp of nuclear weapons but now also the key regional mover. And Iran’s and Syria’s patron Russia, our avowed enemy, has extended its influence. These are not consequences that 2,000 to 4,000 American troops had any hope of ameliorating—which is to say, they’re not consequences that Trump’s withdrawal decision had any effect on at all. They’re the consequences of ten years of missteps, which turn on a single origin point: Obama’s post-Bush foreign policy fantasy that we could right all wrongs in a region that turns on fierce inter-state competition by pacifying Iran, its most ruthless state competitor.

But none of this is being talked about—and it probably won’t be. The partisan charade will only intensify, as Trump’s clumsy withdrawal gives his enemies an excuse to pounce. Left and center Democrats will forget their own histories of inaction and rush to speak up for the interventionist vagaries they opposed. Saudi Arabia’s overreach, personified by the bumbling if over-signified Khashoggi killing, will continue to be inflamed for political purposes, obscuring the real regional action: the Russian-Iran-Syria solidification.

Some hawkish internationalists will attack Trump as “worse than Obama”: a legitimate expression of horror at the President’s humanitarian deafness that still obscures the underlying problem by personalizing it. Others, like Lindsey Graham, will haggle over the withdrawal timing—another distinction without a real difference. And Mattis and McGurk will be treated in the media histories of the moment as “grownups in the room,” figures in the “resistance,” fodder for a thousand patriotic tweets and maybe even a book or two.

We need to push back against all this obscuring. For, as we argue around each other, Iran maneuvers with ever more impunity. ISIS cells plot their regrowth. Assad, to whom we have given a complete victory, persists in his despotic vocation: maybe the first genocidal killer in half a century that America has chosen to forget committed genocide. And Russia, a threat at home and abroad, gains proxies up to the Mediterranean. We won’t fix this situation, one we created, by railing against the finger-pointer in the White House. We’ll only fix it by looking at what we did wrong in the first place and, from that lesson, taking a wholly different approach: treating the Ayatollah, Assad, and Putin as our main regional adversaries—a bloc of hostile actors that we need, calmly and firmly, to maneuver against.

Martin Peretz was Editor-in-Chief of The New Republic for 36 years and taught social theory at Harvard University for nearly half a century.

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Trump Departs Syria: An Israeli Perspective

Michael Herzog

Policy Watch, January 8, 2019

US National Security Advisor John Bolton in Israel with PM Netanyahu last week, where the US pullout was high on the agenda. 

Jerusalem seeks to mitigate the potential risks of the president’s decision by shaping its implementation and obtaining U.S. security guarantees, though long-term concerns still loom.

Israeli officials have been careful not to publicly criticize President Trump’s recent announcement that all U.S. military forces will be pulled out of Syria. Below the surface, however, they have exuded dissatisfaction, concern, and a desire to make the best out of the situation.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s initial public response was lukewarm, stating that Israel will continue to take care of its security and “will not abide Iranian entrenchment in Syria.” He followed those remarks with hectic bilateral discussions on the matter, holding a phone call with President Trump, meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of a gathering in Brazil, and hosting National Security Advisor John Bolton in Jerusalem. These discussions elicited U.S. public assurances about Israel’s security and, so it appears, opened opportunities to affect the manner in which Trump’s decision is implemented.

Some current and former Israeli officials have played down Trump’s announcement, emphasizing that the U.S. contingent in Syria is small and passive in the face of Iran’s military thrusts, that Israel alone has shouldered the burden of pushing back against these thrusts, and that Washington will support Israel even if U.S. forces are in fact withdrawn. Correct as they are, these statements do not tell the whole story.

ISRAEL’S CONCERNS CENTER ON IRAN

Israeli decisionmaking circles tend to contextualize Trump’s decision as part of a perceived American trajectory of retreat from the Middle East, with Washington apparently resolved to reduce its military footprint due to various factors: fatigue following years of costly wars in the region, decreased dependency on Middle Eastern energy resources, and a desire to turn inward while shifting its focus toward the Far East. President Obama seemed to draw on this deep sentiment as well, albeit in different ways. Consequently, Israelis are concerned about the potential weakening of an important complement to their strategic deterrence and an anchor of regional stability.

For the most part, Israel looks at the U.S. decision through the prism of the biggest threats to its national security—namely, Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, and its army of proxies building up their capabilities in Israel’s immediate neighborhood. Viewed through this prism, the bottom line is negative.

Iran has clear designs to turn war-torn Syria into a formidable military front against Israel, merging it with the front in Lebanon as part of a strategic plan to encircle Israel and establish a contiguous corridor of de facto Iranian control stretching to the Mediterranean Sea. In recent years, Israel has defined its redlines on Iranian involvement in Syria and enforced them through consistent military action—a campaign that has been relatively successful but runs the risk of wider Israeli-Iranian conflict. In this sense, Jerusalem has correctly read the Trump administration’s attitude as a division of labor: the United States applies heavy pressure on Iran, but mainly in the nuclear context, and limited to economic and political tools; meanwhile, the role of confronting Iran’s regional ambitions militarily has been left to local forces, first among them Israel.

Given Israel’s guiding principle of independent self-defense and the fact that Washington does not see Syria as critical to its own national security interests, Israelis never expected U.S. forces to play an active role in the campaign to counter Iran militarily there. Nevertheless, they did hope that the administration would incorporate its existing military assets and activities in Syria into a coherent strategy for blocking Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region. These hopes were kindled by senior members of Trump’s national security team, who in recent months repeatedly and clearly linked the continued U.S. military presence in Syria with Iran’s presence.

Iranian military bases in Syria:  Israel had hoped a US presence would assist its campaign to see these bases withdrawn from the country. 

Yet Trump abruptly snuffed out these hopes, tying his withdrawal decision to the fight against the Islamic State and thereby underscoring that America’s presence in Syria was not part of a wider counter-Iran strategy. The United States definitely supports Israel and other regional stakeholders in that strategy, and its recent economic sanctions have pressured Iran’s foreign investments, but it is apparently unwilling to assume a proactive, leading role in this regional campaign.

Israeli defense officials are concerned because a U.S. withdrawal would affect two key areas: (1) al-Tanf base and the fifty-five-kilometer buffer zone surrounding it in southeast Syria, which sits on the strategic route between Baghdad and Damascus, and (2) the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria. These areas (especially al-Tanf) have stunted branches of Iran’s planned corridor to the Mediterranean. Jordan is likewise worried about the evacuation of al-Tanf because it may allow for the deployment of Iranian proxies near its border—a significant concern for Israel, which regards the kingdom’s stability as crucial.

If these key roadblocks are removed, Iran and its proxies could quickly step up their efforts to complete the corridor and use it to move forces and weapons to and through Syria by land, lessening their heavy reliance on problematic air routes and further developing their military infrastructure inside Syria and Lebanon. Israel would have no choice but to respond to this challenge forcefully. The Israeli-Iranian showdown in Syria has lessened in recent months, mainly due to Moscow’s strong intervention with both parties following the September downing of a Russian military plane there. The focus of the showdown subsequently switched to Lebanon, where Iran’s client Hezbollah has sought to produce high-precision rockets and dig attack tunnels into Israel. Yet hostilities could easily re-erupt in Syria, particularly if Iran steps up its activity there after U.S. withdrawal.

From Jerusalem’s perspective, even a modest U.S. troop presence that remains passive against Iran adds value to the goal of deterring Moscow and Tehran, underlining U.S. support for Israel at a time when it has been risking war with Iran and potential conflict with Russia. The Kremlin has already sought to limit Israel’s freedom of action in Syria since the September shootdown crisis, blaming Israeli forces for a deadly blunder committed by the Assad regime’s air defenses. Bilateral relations have yet to fully recover.

Israeli defense officials believe that directing this blame at Israel was one of Russia’s tactics for pushing toward possible understandings with Washington regarding withdrawal from Syria, among other issues. According to recent media reports, Moscow approached Israeli officials in September about opening a dialogue with the United States, partly to convey its willingness to push Iranian and proxy forces out of Syria. In return, Washington would have been asked to freeze or relax economic sanctions on Iran and remove its forces from Syria. Israeli officials turned down the proposal mainly because they did not want to encourage any relaxation of sanctions on Iran, yet some believe that the Trump administration could have leveraged Russia’s interest as a bargaining chip to extricate concessions before pulling out troops. Unfortunately, Trump’s announcement gave Moscow and Tehran what they wanted for free.

Looking ahead, some Israeli officials are quietly concerned about the fact that Washington keeps demonstrating its reluctance to apply military force in the region, basing its coercive policies on economic pressure. They wonder what the administration will do if Iran regenerates its nuclear program and approaches a dangerous breakout potential. Would Washington regard this as a redline compelling a U.S. military option, or would it expect Israel to take care of the problem?

Aside from Iranian concerns, the U.S. withdrawal announcement has troubled Israeli officials in the broader regional context. By strengthening perceptions of U.S. retreat, the move signals to regional players that they must deal with Russia in order to safeguard their interests. Moreover, the decision was made in concert with Turkey, a country whose anti-Israel rhetoric has spiked of late. Other key U.S. allies are likewise unhappy about Washington’s apparent deference to Ankara, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Yet one silver lining in this problematic turn of events is that it may motivate key Arab states to deepen their cooperation with Israel, whom they regard as a reliable partner in the struggle against Islamist threats, Sunni or Shia.

CONCLUSION

Israel will necessarily adjust to the new situation and continue to take action against Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, as it has already done in the three weeks since Trump’s announcement. In particular, it seeks to reshape understandings with Moscow regarding Syria, influence how the U.S. withdrawal is implemented (e.g., drawn-out timetables, leaving the U.S. contingent at al-Tanf, continued air operations, etc.), and obtain additional U.S. security guarantees and assistance, including recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. While the administration appears attentive to some of these requests and is exerting significant effort to mitigate the negative regional impression of President Trump’s decision, the situation’s broader, long-term implications are still looming in Jerusalem and cannot be ignored.

Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, IDF (Ret.), is the Milton Fine International Fellow at The Washington Institute. Previously, he served as head of strategic planning for the IDF and chief of staff to Israeli ministers of defense.