by Dr. Mordechai Kedar
United States President Donald Trump decided, without prior warning, to bring home the American military forces deployed in eastern Syria since 2014, originally sent there to fight ISIS.
Israel would, of course, much prefer that the American forces remain in Syria, but their pullout is far from a tragedy and even provides a window of opportunity.
According to the media, the decision was taken during a telephone conversation with President Recip Erdogan of Turkey, in which Erdogan asked his American colleague to ensure that US army soldiers are not in the line of fire of Turkish fighters when they attack the Syrian Kurdish region. Trump soothed Erdogan's ruffled feathers, saying that the American soldeirs were in Syria to fight ISIS, not Turkey, to which Erdogan responded that the Turkish army can take care of ISIS by itself. Trump jumped at the suggestion and decided to bring the soldiers home now that ISIS is weakened, leaving the terror organization to the devoted ministrations of Turkey.
This event takes us back two years, to the last US presidential election campaign. Trump, who understands the American public extremely well, knows that 99% of US citizens don't even know where Syria is on the map, or why American soldiers are there. They have no desire to see American soldiers killed and wounded in wars that have no direct influence on US security. That's the reason that Trump, who is familiar with the mood of the man-in-the-US-street, promised voters that he would get the American soldiers out of Syria. In contrast to most politicians, Trump makes every effort to fulfill his election promises. The word for that is "trustworthiness," a basic principle of business management, but one that is often ignored by the ordinary politician.
The problem is that as time stretched on, ISIS was almost completely destroyed and American forces in Syria accepted responsibility for three other vital issues: 1. Guarding the region between the Euphrates and the Syrian-Iraqi border from Iran's schemes for a takeover and thwarting its plans for an Iranian highway stretching from Teheran to the Mediterranean Sea, both issues crucial to Israel and Saudi Arabia. 2. Guarding Syrian oil fields from Russian takeovers 3. Aiding the autonomouus Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria by offering advice, supplying weapons and intelligence and protecting the Kurds from the Turkish Army.
This, then, is the real significance of the American pullout: Iran will take over large swathes of Syrian territory, Russia will gain control of the oil fields in the eastern part of the country, east of the Euphrates, and the Kurds will be left at the mercy of the Turks.
Trump's announcement of the American Exodus from Syria came as a shock to Israelis, who anxiously asked themselves who would stop the Iranians once the US troops are gone. The Kurds, by comparison, literally trapped in their small enclave, reacted even more anxiously, because the Turkish Army, as opposed to the IDF, does not limit its operations to the dictates of an Attorney General (if there is one in Turkey, in the first place) and its officers have not yet heard the term "human rights" applied to Kurds. The Kurds see the American pullout as nothing less than a betrayal and a knife in the back, especially since the blood of thousands of Kurdish fighters was spilled in the war against ISIS in 2014-2016 - a fact no one seems to remember anymore, nor does anyone appreciate the central part they played in ISIS' defeat.
I suggest to the Kurds to make the best of a bad situation: Sit down with Assad, and try to see to it that several Russians and Turks are present at the meeting. Try to reach the best settlement you can with him, one that includes the recognition of the Kurds' collective rights to cultural autonomy, recognition of your language as a legal one in your area and the recognition of your right to representation in Syria's governmental institutions. Insist on obtaining Syrian citizenship (taken away from you in 1962) so that each and every one of you has civil rights in a Syrian state. True, this is not what you hoped for, it is not an independent state, but remember that your Iraqi brothers relinquished their hopes for an independent state forming a small enclave between three hostile states, with no air route to the outside world. You, too, do not want a state subject to the mercies of the Turks, Syrians and Iraqis in order to import medication, for example, fom the outside world.
Will life at the mercy of Syria be ideal? Absolutely not, and you have learned this the hard way, but the alternative is definitely worse. Politics is the art of the possible, so go for what you can get now and if the future provides you with an opening to the sea, you can always recalculate.
And to my Israeli brothers, let me say this:
1. We - Israel and the Jewish people - have faced much worse situations than the US pullout from Syria, and we have survived.
2. Stop pressing the panic button, and that means both in the media and the general public. Panic does not add anything to the balanced, sage thinking so necessary at this time.
3. Despite the coming elections, I am sure that those responsible for Israel's security, from the Prime Minister downwards, are talking to their American colleagues in order the plan the way Israel is to operate so as to protect its own interests and those of the US in Syria. Most surely they are planning how israel is to deal with the encouragement Iran is going to glean from the American withdrawal from Syria. My heart tells me that the US security echelons will be more willing to accede to Israeli requests for arms and the types of weapons the US did not agree to provide for Israel in the past - or grudgingly agreed to provide in limited amounts.
4. My heart tells me in addition, that the US will be more open to supplying Israel with intelligence info on Iranian incursions into Syrian territory.
5. This means that the US will give Israel a clearer green light than it has in the past to deal more decisively with Iranian targets.
No less important:
6. The US will give Israel political support, mainly in the UN Security Council, when Israel's acitivities to restrain Iranian expansion in Syria find themselves on the agendas of international bodies.
If all the six points above come to pass, Israel will not do too badly in the wake of the American pullout. It is important that Israelis remember that America has too many people - in politics, media and the halls of academia - who can be described as "Israel-haters" and who never miss an opportunity to bash Israel, with and mostly without any reason to do so. Bodies of American soldiers brought from Syria - G-d forbid - to America for burial - will grant those anti-Semites the chance to claim that American soldiers are being sacrificed to protect Israel. The fact that this accusation is totally detached from reality does not prevent it, if made, from significantly causing harm to Israel, and the freedom of speech that exists in America does not allow for its suppression. It is in Israel's interest to prevent situations that can grant these claims any legitimacy, and taking US soldiers out of Syria serves that purpose.
One other issue must be kept in mind: The presence of both Russian and American troops in Syria can lead to a clash of world powers dangerously close to Israel. In February 2018, ten months ago, close tp 150 armed Russians, members of some militia, were killed. In a battle with the American forces that are about to pull out of Syria, a Russian takeover attempt aimed at a Syrian oil installation was abandoned, and Putin swallowed the bitter pill so as not to complicate his relationship with Trump. Those killed were not regular Russian soldiers, but is it not possible that something similar could happen again?
The bottom line is that Israel would, of course, much prefer that the American forces remain in Syria, but their pullout is far from a tragedy and even provides an opportunity that Israel can use to its advantage. There is no question that Israeli decision makers will know how to present suitable requests to the US and make the right decisions in the new situation created in our far-from-stable region. However, we have overcome more serious situations, so that there is no real reason for the depressing atmosphere some of the media pundits are trying to create.
We must remember that Trump is first and foremost President of the United States, not of Israel, and that American interests direct his steps.
Written for Arutz Sheva, translated from the Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky, English site Op-ed and Judaism Editor.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University. He served in IDF Military Intelligence for 25 years, specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. Thoroughly familiar with Arab media in real time, he is frequently interviewed on the various news programs in Israel.
Follow Middle East and Terrorism on Twitter