Donald Trump's sudden Dec. 19 announcement that the U.S. would withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria cost him his defense secretary and set off alarm bells among Israel's staunchest U.S. supporters, notably Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. The one person we didn't hear objecting was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
That's less of a mystery than it might appear. Having carefully built a close relationship with Trump - one that has already resulted in the historic U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and other signs of friendship - Netanyahu knows better than to publicly upbraid his ally. But behind the scenes, he's worked to ensure that any American withdrawal not only doesn't hurt Israel, but might deliver some benefits.
In Brazil last week, Netanyahu discussed Israel-American cooperation with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and received assurances that the American commitment to countering Iranian aggression and to the "protection of Israel" is unchanged. This week, National Security Adviser John Bolton came to Jerusalem to explicitly declare American support for Israel's war against Iran in Syria and Lebanon.
Bolton seems to have succeeded in getting some conditionality attached to the withdrawal plan, though expressed with excruciating care so as not to be seen to contradict his boss: "Timetables or the timing of withdrawal occurs as a result of the fulfillment of the conditions and the establishment of the circumstances we want to see. It is not the establishment of an arbitrary point for the withdrawal to take place as President Obama did in the Afghan situation ... The timetable flows from the policy decisions that we need to implement." Translated into English, this suggests that an unconditional, immediate withdrawal would send the wrong signals to Arab and Kurdish allies, and to Iranian adversaries, not to mention the Lindsey Graham wing of the Republican Party.
Netanyahu, standing next to Bolton, maintained his public silence on the question. He has nothing to gain by entering into the argument over the withdrawal. He also has less to lose by a withdrawal than many think.
"The ultimate test of a sovereign nation is its ability to defend itself," Bolton declared. That was not a brush-off, but a compliment. Military self-sufficiency is central to Israel's national ethos: It can never base its safety on the kindness of strangers, or even well-meaning friends. This is what motivates young Israelis to serve in the military, and allows their parents to accept this service as a requirement of national survival.
From the Israeli perspective, Trump was not being cavalier when he told reporters that Israel can take care of itself. "We give them huge money to fight their own battles," he said. He put the sum at $4.5 billion, most of which is used by Israel to buy American-made weapons, a fact that fits nicely with Trump's America-First jobs policy. Loudly protesting the withdrawal would have been a projection of weakness, not strength; that's not how Netanyahu does things.
Nor was there much to be gained through complaint. The presence of 2,000 American troops in northeastern Syria has been helpful in blocking overland supply routes from Tehran to Iran's Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah; but they are, from Jerusalem's point of view, not essential. Israel is waging its war on Hezbollah mostly from the air. What Netanyahu wants from Trump is not American troops in the neighborhood, but his support for Israel to have freedom of action in the skies of Syria and Lebanon, and perhaps western Iraq.
With its air superiority, Israel can maintain red lines on the ground, preventing shipment of advanced Iranian weapons to Hezbollah via Damascus, preventing Iranian military installations in proximity to Israel, and, of course, preventing attacks on Israeli territory. Russia, which has installed new air defenses in Syria, has thus far respected Israeli security interests, but the dynamics could change if Russia were to allow the Syrians to control the defenses directly.
A greater danger is that Russia will make a deal with Iran or Turkey that causes a change in Putin's attitudes. Clear support from the U.S. for Israeli air operations in Syria would make it riskier for Russian President Vladimir Putin to make such a move. The fuss around the planned U.S. withdrawal has also created a fresh opportunity for Netanyahu to raise the issue of the Golan Heights, which Israel regards as integral to its national security. No nation has accepted Israeli sovereignty in the Heights, which it seized from Syria in the Six Day War. Netanyahu told Bolton that Israel would never leave the Heights and that it was time for the world - meaning, of course, the U.S. - recognized Israel's claim. He announced that the two would visit the Heights, but the poor weather meant that didn't happen. Expect Netanyahu to keep pressing on this point with American interlocutors in the weeks and months ahead. If the U.S. wants to show it cares even after the troops leave Syria, here's a way to show it.
An abrupt U.S. pullout from Syria would, of course, worry Israelis. But not overly, so long as America's greater commitment to Israel remains firm. There is no sign it won't. How the U.S. wields influence in the world matters more to Israelis than how it projects power in northeastern Syria.
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