US Mideast pullback didn’t start with the Kurds, and it won’t end there either
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Analysis

US Mideast pullback didn’t start with the Kurds, and it won’t end there either

Trump’s decision to pull troops away from Syria means Israel is losing a key ally in the region, but it should not come as a surprise

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

In this Sept. 21, 2019, photo, released by the US Army, a US soldier oversees members of the Syrian Democratic Forces as they demolish a Kurdish fighters' fortification as part of the so-called "safe zone" near the Turkish border. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl via AP)
In this Sept. 21, 2019, photo, released by the US Army, a US soldier oversees members of the Syrian Democratic Forces as they demolish a Kurdish fighters' fortification as part of the so-called "safe zone" near the Turkish border. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Andrew Goedl via AP)

US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon his country’s Kurdish partners in Syria should come as no surprise. He has been loudly, explicitly declaring his intention to do so for over a year and a half.

Some may have been startled by the seemingly uncoordinated and sudden way in which Trump gave Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a de facto green light to launch an offensive against the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northwest Syria — a campaign that in a just over a week has already killed dozens of people, mostly on the Kurdish side, and displaced over 150,000.

But the move itself, capricious and disorganized as it was, can still be seen as part of a White House foreign policy that has sought to disengage from the Middle East, including the Kurdish allies who have fought alongside US troops against the Islamic State terror group for years.

Trump’s latest move was a significant milestone in an ongoing pivot away from the region, a shift that began before the current administration and whose effects will be felt well into the next one, regardless of who occupies the Oval Office.

For Jerusalem, this may mean the loss of a key ally in the region and in the fight against Iran and its proxies. Filling the vacuum left by America is Russia, which is far less sympathetic to Israel, putting Israel on far poorer strategic footing.

The hasty manner in which this US withdrawal is being conducted is also expected to serve as a major boon to Islamic State, allowing its captured members in SDF-run prisons to flee in the chaos and regroup elsewhere, so they can carry on their fight and continue to serve as a destabilizing force in the region for years to come.

A US soldier sits atop an armored vehicle during a demonstration by Syrian Kurds against Turkish threats next to a base for the US-led international coalition on the outskirts of Ras al-Ain town in Syria’s Hasakeh province near the Turkish border, October 6, 2019 (AFP)

Long time coming

Trump left no doubt about his intentions to remove US troops from Syria prior to his phone call with Erdoğan last week, in which he said American soldiers would not interfere in the Turkish military’s offensive against America’s erstwhile partner, the SDF, in northern Syria.

Since March 2018, Trump has declared his intention to remove all US troops from the civil war-torn country.

“We’ll be coming out of Syria very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon, we’re coming out,” Trump said during a speech in Ohio that month.

This sentiment was repeated by US defense officials in April 2018 and stated explicitly as policy six months later.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the US president wrote in a tweet in December 2018, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

While many Middle East analysts have disputed the US president’s claims regarding the defeat of Islamic State — though the group lost territory, it retained many of its fighters and the ability to carry out attacks, and thus still represented a significant threat — Trump’s desire to pull the troops out was undiminished, even if he did relent in December and agree to leave some troops in place for a bit.

This pullback is part of a larger promise made by Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign to end what he refers to as America’s “endless wars” — a term often used for the US conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Opposition to using military force in the Middle East can also be seen in the United States’ limited or nonexistent retaliations to presumed Iranian attacks on US allies in the Persian Gulf, notably on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facility last month.

Syrian families fleeing the battle zone between Turkey-led forces and Kurdish fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in and around the northern flashpoint town of Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey, October 15, 2019. (Delil SOULEIMAN/AFP)

This US withdrawal from Syria and the Middle East in general strips Israel of a key ally which could have at least kept Iran in check. In recent years, Iran has moved to entrench itself militarily in Syria, establishing bases and proxy militias in the country, which could be used to threaten the Jewish state.

Israel has fought against this effort by Tehran with airstrikes on Iranian assets in Syria and reportedly also in Iraq. While Jerusalem has largely waged this campaign by itself, a full US exit from Syria — and with it the operational and intelligence apparatus that American could use to assist Israel — makes this task yet more difficult.

For now, according to American media reports, the US will maintain a small contingent in al-Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi border, a deployment seen as critical in preventing Tehran from creating a so-called “land corridor” from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.

However, as a lone garrison in Syria, it is unclear how effective those US troops will be at countering Iran’s efforts.

The US military outpost al-Tanf in southern Syria, October 22, 2018. (AP/Lolita Baldor)

Russia filling the void

The United States’ refusal to engage with Syria and its bloody civil war did not begin with Donald Trump, but rather with his predecessor Barack Obama. In 2013, Obama reneged on his promise to respond to any use of chemical weapons by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, passing the buck to the US Congress to approve such a military action in Syria while knowing full well that this would not happen.

According to many analysts and defense officials, Obama’s decision not to respond to a violation of his “red line” paved the way for Russia to enter the conflict and become the dominant superpower in the civil war, all but ensuring Assad’s victory.

This years-long trend of Russia filling the vacuum left behind by the US could be seen most literally this week in the flashpoint town of Manbij, where American troops maintained a number of outposts since 2017.

US troops left the area rapidly this week, following Trump’s announcement. Russian soldiers moved into the area shortly thereafter, bringing with them Russian journalists who filmed the hastily abandoned outposts.

A video posted online by the pro-Kremlin Anna news site showed the detritus left behind by the sudden American pullout: cans of Pringle chips, worn copies of bestselling novels, soft drinks.

Russia’s taking over America’s influence in the Middle East has not been particularly beneficial for Israel, as Moscow lacks the ability and inclination to counter the threats facing the Jewish state, namely from Iran and its proxies.

This trend is unlikely to change in the near future, even if someone else enters the White House in 2020. With no infrastructure or active partnerships in Syria, America would fight an uphill battle to gain a strategic foothold in the country, which would likely be a tough sell domestically.

So Israel will likely continue in its fight against Iran in Syria alone, but now with less support.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have touted the potential for a mutual defense treaty with the US ahead of last month’s elections, but he set the record straight last week in terms of Israel’s expectations of direct military assistance.

“As in 1973, today we also greatly appreciate the important support of the US… At the same time, we always remember and implement the basic rule that guides us: Israel will protect itself, on its own, against any threat,” said Netanyahu during a memorial ceremony for the Yom Kippur War.

Speaking to The Times of Israel earlier this week, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror explained that while Israel can carry the burden without a US presence in Syria, this withdrawal is still a blow to Jerusalem’s campaigns against Iran and its regional policy goals in general.

“Not because we can’t defend ourselves, but because we understand that the Middle East from now on will [have to manage] without influence, or with less influence, from the Americans.”

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