The U.S withdrawal from Syria is a very scary step. Even more frightening is the fact that President Donald Trump made that decision after receiving assurances from Turkish dictator Recep Tayip Erdogan that he will “finish off ISIS”.
Erdogan’s pledge of course is far from credible, as he has enabled the sale of ISIS stolen oil through Turkish territory and is an enemy of the Syrian Kurds, who have been instrumental in defeating ISIS.
The ruthless dictatorship of Bashar Al Assad is very close to recovering a large portion of the territory and authority it had lost during the last seven years of civil war, owing its survival to Russia and Iran. Russia’s presence has served as an important deterrent force against U.S and Western intervention, while Iran has provided Assad with fighters, expanding its activities in Iraq and Yemen. Its proxy, Hezbollah, has managed to build tunnels that make Israel vulnerable to attacks.
Therefore, it’s no wonder that Russia, Iran and Turkey joyfully welcomed Trump’s decision.
Now, Turkey can easily crush the Kurds in Syria, who represent the worst nightmare for Turkey. Ironically, the Kurds have been at the forefront of the fight against the Islamic State, the group that has most worried the U.S. The Kurds, rather than being rewarded for their efforts, will now be exposed to Turkish aggression, which could easily turn into a bloody war. If Turkey attacks Kurdish fighters, the only beneficiary will be the Islamic State. In addition, the Kurds control about one-third of Syria’s territory, and Kurdish autonomy is a strategic asset to U.S interest in the region. The Kurds may lose that as well.
An Israeli newspaper reported that Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria was made after the U.S, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel cut a deal with Vladimir Putin, where the Russian president agreed to restrain Hezbollah in Syria and allow Israel to continue military operations against Iran and its proxies in Syria.
This arrangement is deeply flawed. Putin’s behavior does not offer any guarantees that he will restrain Iran, and in fact, Russia has resented Israeli strikes on Iranian bases in Syria. Iran and Russia have increased their trade, and Russia has provided weapons to the Iranians. It’s not clear why Israel would rely on Russia to restrain Iran and likewise, why the Sunni Arab states would think that Russia would try to stop Iranian subversive activities in various Arab states.
To take Russia’s assurances at face value would be foolish to say the least.
In order to curb Iranian, Russian and Turkish influence in the region, Israel and the Sunni states (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states) now have no choice but to cooperate.
This alliance should now be expanded into a coalition with larger strategic goals. The dangers in the region are coming not only from an expanding Iranian subversive force in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but also from an ambitious Islamist Turkey that could possibly become a Sunni version of Iran. Turkey, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and adversary of Saudi Arabia, has maintained tense relations with these two countries. Likewise, Erdogan has de-normalized the good relations between Turkey and Israel, making vicious anti-Semitic statements, openly supporting Hamas, and strengthening relations with Iran.
With regard to Israel, despite the country’s military strength, its main security policy agenda has been based on protecting its own borders and trying to contain Iran. Thus, Israel has returned fire and directed military operations against Hamas and Hezbollah after these groups have attacked or endangered Israeli towns and populations. Israel decided to engage in a campaign to destroy Hezbollah’s underground tunnels only after the terrorist group had already penetrated Israeli territory. This defensive and shy approach is the result of the fact that Israel does not want to be perceived in the Arab world as a troublemaker. Thus, Israel has tried to avoid being targeted by Arab propaganda, which usually translates into international condemnation, a result that seems to occur regardless of Israeli actions.
Therefore, Israel has avoided taking sides in the Syrian civil war, so far dealing mainly with Russia for the purpose of restraining Iran and Hezbollah. With America’s withdrawal from Syria, the time has come for Israel to reconsider its defensive security policy and turn to a grand pro-active strategy.
The Arab Spring has challenged the traditional forms of Arab authority and the regional order. New actors are emerging and maps are being redrawn. This is particularly true in Syria, where even if the Assad regime succeeds in reestablishing its authority, it will not do so over the entire Syrian territory. The Arab World is engaged in a number of disparate internal conflicts that have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and created millions of refugees. None of these conflicts, and the resulting Arab suffering, has any connection to Israel whatsoever. Those in the Arab world seeking to alleviate their suffering or enhance their freedoms would welcome any help, including help from Israel (as has been demonstrated by the gratitude expressed by Syrian refugeeswho received medical attention in Israel)
So far In Syria, Israel has supported 12 rebel groups, but only in order to push Iran-backed forces and ISIS fighters away from its borders. Israel could move beyond humanitarian help and limited cooperation with rebels and establish alliances with selected rebel forces, and above all, the Kurds, with whom Israel has a long tradition of cooperation, particularly in Iraq. Israel has not established connections with rebels beyond the southern border, although it has provided remarkable humanitarian aid to Syrians seeking help along the border.
Israel could provide aid to the Syrian Kurds, who have courageously and successfully fought ISIS. Kurdish autonomy could also lead to another liberal oasis in the Middle East that could counterbalance both the Assad regime and Turkey.
In other words, despite Israel’s small size it has no choice now but to think of itself as a larger power.
There are also reasons to believe that many elements in the Arab world could revise the traditional Arab narrative of Israel being the source of all its troubles. Israel now has an opportunity to create alliances, not only with conservative status-quo Arab countries, but also with emerging groups– so long as they support positive changes and are not associated with any radical or Islamist group.
U.S withdrawal from Syria was ill-conceived and a bad move overall. However, it now leaves Israelis and Arabs an opportunity to seek creative resolutions in the Middle East. Perhaps, this cooperation could even lead to a final Israeli-Arab peace.