Debate Over What U.S. Syria Pullout Means For Israel
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Letter From Israel

Debate Over What U.S. Syria Pullout Means For Israel

‘Significant event’ that carries real danger, or more ‘psychological’ than strategic.

Contributing Editor, The NY Jewish Week

A view of a US military base in the al-Asaliyah village, between the city of Aleppo and the northern town of Manbij, in Syria, April 2, 2018.  Delil Soueiman/AFP/Getty Images
A view of a US military base in the al-Asaliyah village, between the city of Aleppo and the northern town of Manbij, in Syria, April 2, 2018. Delil Soueiman/AFP/Getty Images

Haifa — To see why the latest decision by President Trump — abruptly pulling 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria — is riling Israel, you don’t need to go to volatile border areas. Just visit this relaxed port city.

As cranes methodically stack shipping containers near the glistening blue sea, it’s hard to imagine this place under attack from a missile base just up the coast. But this is a real possibility — and Trump’s decision could make it more likely.

In the days since the president’s move, done apparently without consultation with his own aides or America’s allies, ministers and soldiers here have been trying to put on a brave face. It is a “significant event,” admitted Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, “but there’s no need to overstate it” as Israel has long been managing the Syria front alone.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to “reassure those who are concerned,” but he didn’t have a convincing retort when Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party, said that the decision is a “failure of Netanyahu’s foreign policy.”

The Netanyahu foreign policy has been built around containing Iran and getting Washington to consider Israeli interests. Yet now, Washington is handing Iran new opportunities in Syria, on Israel’s doorstep.

Trump argued that America doesn’t want to be the “policeman of the Middle East,” getting nothing “but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing.”

The president gives the impression that the importance of America in Syria has been all about ISIS. “President Erdogan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria,” Trump said, justifying his decision. He reportedly told Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: “OK, it’s all yours. We are done.”

But Israelis have long believed that American presence is less important for countering ISIS than for keeping Iran in check.

“The American move plays into the hands of Iran, which aims to limit any U.S. presence in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria,” observed analysts Eldad Shavit and Udi Dekel in an analysis for the Institute for National Security Studies.

They noted that the U.S. presence in eastern Syria, along the border with Iraq, has actually reduced the flow of weapons to militants stationed close to Israel, as it has “restricted Iranian freedom to transfer troops and weapons by land from Iran, through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon.”

Israelis have slept easier because they considered America to be a force of reason in Syria. “Now, Russia will be the sole responsible adult in the Eastern Mediterranean,” said Shaul Chorev, former deputy chief of naval operations for the IDF.

One of Israel’s big Iran-related worries is fear of a land corridor or land bridge that Tehran is trying to establish from its territory through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to the Mediterranean.

Such a corridor could allow Iran to freely move soldiers and weapons, but until now America has frustrated the plan as it has Special Forces at key points on the Syria-Iraq border. They have prevented free movement of Iranians, but without them there, Iran could realize its ambition and then suddenly its power could extend in to the Mediterranean Sea.

“They are looking to have an entrance to the Mediterranean Sea, and if this happens it may impact Israel’s security,” said Chorev. “From there, they could endanger the Haifa Port and the Israel navy.”

Chorev has particular insight into Iranian ambitions. He is former head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, and now heads the Haifa Research Centre for Maritime Policy and Strategy. He called America’s plan “disturbing” and commented: “Without the American presence in Syria stopping this aspiration and deterring the Iranians, it could be easier for them to realize their aspirations.”

If the Iranians manage to establish their land bridge to the Mediterranean, they are expected to build a naval base by the Syrian coast. “They would operate their navy in the Mediterranean,” Chorev said. He fears that a base would be used for missile attacks on Haifa, maritime attacks on the Israeli coast, and the smuggling of arms underwater to Hamas in Gaza.

The possibility of Iranians reaching the Mediterranean adds to other fears that Israel has regarding Iranian power at sea. Much Israeli trade runs through the Red Sea’s Bab al-Mandeb strait. In July, Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis attacked two Saudi tankers there, raising fears that Iran may use its foothold in Yemen to try to disrupt the route.

The incident prompted Netanyahu to speak about a possible scenario of Iran trying to block the Bab-el-Mandeb. “I am convinced that it will find itself facing a determined international coalition to prevent this,” he said.

This was at a navy graduation ceremony in August. Now, after Trump’s latest moves, he can speak with less certainty about international coalitions.

There are some voices in Israel suggesting that the ramifications of Trump’s move are being overblown. “It’s overstated,” said Zaki Shalom, a national security expert from Ben-Gurion University. “It creates some problems, but we don’t need to exaggerate the importance of American troops staying.”

He believes that the blow to Israel is more “psychological” than strategic. He said: “Everything they could do with boots on the ground they can still do now,” he said. “Nothing really significant has changed in their mode of operation in the region.”

Shalom said that America can still strike targets in Syria from various bases in the region including Bahrain, and within less than 20 minutes of leaving the base. “They can send jet fighters to strike in Syria as they want, they can send missiles as they want, and they still have intelligence.”

As for the fears of the Iranians building a land bridge, Shlalom believes that Israel’s deterrent capability would make them cautious about moving armies and arms. “We have struck Iranian targets many times and with no response,” he said. “They are really deterred by Israel’s ability, and they know our red line.”

Shalom said optimistically that following America’s decision, “psychologically there is a feeling of desertion, but in terms of Israel’s operational abilities it’s not significant.”

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.

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