From the beginning, U.S. involvement in the bloody chaos in Syria has been an inconsistent, confusing mess. It would be wrong to lay blame entirely at the feet of President Donald Trump; how can we forget former President Barack Obama’s illusory “red line” on Syria’s grotesque use of chemical weapons on its own people?
That said, President Trump’s rash decision last week to end U.S. military involvement in this vastly complex crisis does not meet the test of sober, well-thought-out policy. Ending a desultory and not overwhelmingly successful U.S. intervention, the abrupt pullout angered key allies, blindsided members of his own administration and triggered the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. It is almost certain to boost Iran’s expansionary goals in the region.
The move essentially abandons our Kurdish allies to a potentially terrible fate, one more signal that alliances with a Trump-led America are not trustworthy. And by accelerating his “America First” foreign policy, President Trump is ceding global leadership to our adversaries and competitors. It’s no wonder the move was quickly praised by Russian President Vladimir Putin, a key supporter of embattled Syrian strongman Bashar Assad.
All of that is bad news for an Israel that continues to seek ways to defuse the threat of a belligerent and increasingly dangerous Iran. The U.S. presence in Syria, small as it was, served as a buffer and prevented Iran from having direct land access to Israel’s northern border. Trump’s move was also a sober reminder to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has thrown in his lot with the president, that pledges, even guarantees, are transactional and subject to change with this administration.
Let’s keep one thing straight: the U.S. involvement in Syria was never a game-changer. With only 2,000 troops and an unclear strategy from the outset, the best that could be said is that it may have helped keep a terrible situation from getting worse and slowed, but didn’t stop, Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.
But the pullout and the shocking way it came about suggest a foreign policy emanating entirely from the mind of an impulsive, not particularly well-informed and highly volatile president. The angry Mattis departure means the loss of an experienced, sober voice amidst the growing White House chaos.
That is particularly worrisome news in the Middle East, where even the most carefully crafted policies can have unimagined and often tragic consequences. And it’s especially troubling for Israel, which relies on steady, thoughtful leadership from an America that takes seriously its responsibility for global leadership in a world filled with malignant actors.