WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria has created a serious policy dispute with Israel, potentially complicating his relationship with the mainstream US pro-Israel community for the first time since he took office.
The withdrawal of some 2,000 soldiers from Syria will likely make it more difficult for Israel to fight Iranian efforts to entrench itself in the war-torn country and expand its influence in the region.
Much like Israel’s government, which is faced with trying to preserve its tight bond with the Trump administration despite reports of Jerusalem feeling “betrayed,” the pro-Israel community in the US is also having to find a way to navigate between backing Trump and backing Israel.
“I think the relationship between the Trump administration and most pro-Israel groups has been complicated by this,” Alan Dershowitz, a former Harvard Law professor and Israel advocate, told The Times of Israel.
Major pro-Israel policy groups have mostly avoided clashing with the Trump White House, and their policy positions on Iran and Israel have general been in lockstep with the administration.
But a bland statement released by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Thursday appeared to indicate its disagreement with the White House over the Syria decision.
“It is imperative that Iran and Hezbollah are prevented from exploiting this development to further destabilize the region and threaten our allies,” the powerful lobby said.
“The administration should work with our regional allies and take steps to counter the mounting aggression of Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah. Iran must not be allowed to have a permanent military presence in Syria, which is counter to US interests and threatens the peace and security of the region.”
The American Jewish Committee was even more direct in criticizing the pullout.
We urge President Trump to reconsider withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria. They have performed heroic service, but their job isn’t over. The only winners will be Russia and Iran — and a resurgent Islamic State. Why would we possibly cede ground to them? Stay the course!
— AJC (@AJCGlobal) December 20, 2018
“We urge President Trump to reconsider withdrawing all US troops from Syria,” the organization tweeted. “They have performed heroic service, but their job isn’t over. The only winners will be Russia and Iran — and a resurgent Islamic State. Why would we possibly cede ground to them? Stay the course!”
Many of the groups that have been supporters of Trump’s Israel and Iran policies — StandWithUs, the Israeli-American Council, the Republican Jewish Coalition — have not commented publicly since the president announced he was removing America’s military presence from Syria.
Israel has repeatedly warned in recent years that Iran is seeking to establish a military presence in Syria, where it is fighting alongside Russia and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
For Israel, the pullout leaves it without a staunch ally in the fight against Iran in Syria and also potentially opens the door for Tehran to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.
While most American troops have been stationed in northeastern Syria, backing Kurdish fighters, a smaller amount have maintained a presence along the Iraqi border at al-Tanf, frustrating Iranian efforts to move weapons and technology. Diplomatically as well, the retreat is seen as essentially ceding the battle arena to Russia, which has been less amenable about Israeli demands to keep Iran from entrenching itself militarily.
Despite being caught off guard by the planned exit, the Israeli government has avoided criticizing Trump publicly, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying only that he had been informed of the decision and vowing to redouble efforts to keep Iran and allied militias from gaining a foothold in the country.
Privately, though, some Israeli officials have grumbled over the move. An unnamed diplomatic official described the decision as a “blow” to Israel in Hebrew-language media and The New York Times reported Friday that Israeli intelligence officials “felt betrayed by the United States withdrawal.”
Throughout Trump’s term in office, he has had exceedingly warm relations with Israel — and a complex relationship with America’s Jewish and pro-Israel community.
While Jewish groups have criticized the president’s failure to unequivocally condemn the Charlottesville white supremacist rioters and his own anti-Semitic supporters, many of them have lauded his decisions to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump and his supporters have portrayed the Syria decision as a realization of part of his isolationist America First policy. In the past, Israel has usually gotten a pass: while Trump has complained about military aid to many countries, he has boasted about the billions Israel receives every year.
Now he has made clear that in making sure America is not used as the world’s policeman, Israel may be left in the same lurch as everyone else.
And that worries even some staunch backers.
Dershowitz, who has defended Trump throughout his term, said the president’s decision had left him “very concerned.”
“I think it creates a vacuum that will be filled by Iran and Russia,” he said Saturday. “It’s something that one has to be very concerned about. Obama created a vacuum there as well when he didn’t carry out his promise on the chemical weapons, and that opened up the door for the Russians to come in. I would hope that mistake would not be repeated.”