President Donald Trump’s declaration on December 19 of his intention to withdraw the small force of U.S. military advisors working in Syria with the Kurdish YPG militia has been widely criticized for abandoning its most effective ally still fighting ISIS on the ground in Syria. The move has also been depicted as Trump surrendering Syria to the tyrant, President Bashar Assad who is guilty of war crimes for using poison gas on Syrian civilians.
During the course of the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, Assad became totally dependent for his survival on military support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, and he has allowed them in return to establish permanent military bases in his country. Assad has been providing the Russian navy with its only base in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a forward military air base from which Russian warplanes fly ground support missions for Assad’s army against the last remaining opposition strongholds in Syria. The alliance with Iran and Syria has also made Russia a major player in Middle East politics for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
Iran has used the alliance with Assad to establish military bases that directly threatening Israel’s northern border, as well as arms factories and storage facilities for the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. That means that in its next war on the northern border, Israel, will face ground and missile attack from both Lebanon and Syria. Iran’s strengthened presence in Syria created a continuous land bridge through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean coast, enabling Iran to exert its dominance across the region.
Over the past three years, Israel has been fighting an undeclared air war against the growing Iranian military presence in Syria. It has staged hundreds of air strikes against Iranian military installations, arms convoys and missile installations to slow the pace of the buildup. Until very recently, the Israel air strikes had been taking place at night and were not launched directly from Israeli air space, to make their origin more difficult to trace. Israeli military and political leaders refused to comment on claims that Israel was responsible for the attacks, in order to avoid giving the Assad regime a pretext for retaliation. But in recent months, Israel has become much more open about the air campaign in Syria, especially with regard to attacks in retaliation for attempted Iranian incursions into Israeli territory or airspace.
Despite repeated efforts by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin to avoid accidental confrontations between their planes in Syrian airspace, a Russian reconnaissance plane was shot down in September, killing all 15 Russians aboard, by Syrian anti-aircraft rockets which had been fired in response to an Israeli air raid. Russia blamed Israel for the incident, and retaliated by upgrading Syria’s anti-aircraft defenses. Israel’s leaders responded by warning the Russians that Israel will not tolerate the establishment of a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria and that it will continue attacking Iranian targets there.
HEZBOLLAH TUNNELS IN THE NORTH
Throughout the Syrian civil war, the Lebanese border with Israel has remained quiet, and by tacit mutual agreement, Israel did not interfere with Iranian efforts to build up Hezbollah’s military. But that changed in December, when the Israeli army began Operation Northern Shield. Using advanced techniques that Israel developed to reveal Hamas terror tunnels in Gaza, the army located and destroyed six terror tunnels which had been dug by Hezbollah to infiltrate its fighters from southern Lebanon into northern Israel in order to launch a surprise attack.
In light of the increasing threat of a Hezbollah invasion along the northern border, Israel’s military has been building an above ground wall in the most vulnerable areas. That is what prompted Hezbollah to start digging the tunnels. Tunneling is much more difficult in the Galil due to its limestone rock terrain, which is much harder than the sandy clay soil in Gaza which can be easily excavated with a simple spoon. To get around the problem, Hezbollah tried to site some of its terror tunnels in dry riverbeds (wadis) made up of thick layers of ordinary earth, which is much easier to dig out.
ENHANCING HEZBOLLAH’S MISSILE THREAT
Israeli leaders have also warned that Iran was building a factory in northern Lebanon to produce more accurate guidance systems for Hezbollah’s stockpile of more than 120,000 rockets. Israel’s Iron Dome and other anti-missile systems are designed to fire only at missiles which are predicted by radar to hit their targets, and allowing the majority of missiles destined to miss their targets to fall harmlessly. If Hezbollah’s missiles do become more accurate, a larger percentage of them would have to be shot down. That might enable Hezbollah to launch so many rockets that must be shot down at the same time that they would overwhelm Israel’s missile defenses, leaving its northern cities defenseless.
That is why the Israeli air force launched an unprecedented daylight attack on the Damascus international airport Sunday at about the same time that a cargo plane from Iran believed to be carrying missile guidance equipment was scheduled to arrive. When Russian radar detected the incoming Israeli attack, the plane from Iran was warned not to land at Damascus airport, forcing it to turn around and return to Teheran. Israel made no attempt to hide its responsibility for the attack, which was described publicly by Netanyahu during the Sunday cabinet meeting.
Israel was sending a clear signal that the ground rules governing its ongoing conflict with Iran in Syria were changing, and that the informal truce between the two sides which had been in effect in Lebanon during the Syrian civil war may also end soon.
Iranian forces in Syria were quick to respond Sunday evening by launching a rocket at the ski slopes on Mr. Hermon which were open to tourists after a snow storm last week. The rocket was successfully intercepted and destroyed by the Iron Dome system. Israel then responded early Monday morning with one of the most intense air attacks in recent years, again sending a clear message to Syria, Iran and Russia that Israel will not tolerate Iranian attacks launched from Syrian soil.
The new military equilibrium in Syria and Lebanon between Israel and Iran has been developing for some time. Trump’s announcement of the imminent U.S. withdrawal from Syria did not come as a total surprise to Israel, because the two countries had been coordinating their approaches to the Syrian civil war and the war against ISIS. But Trump’s decision to reduce the U.S. footprint in the region does mean that Israel will be taking a more active role in countering the threats to its security from the north.
UPDATE ON THE WAR AGAINST ISIS
Symbolically, the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria is significant. But from a military perspective, the controversy following Trump’s abrupt announcement was blown completely out of proportion. The main role of the 2,200 non-combat U.S. troops in Syria had always been to provide training and support for the Kurdish YPG militias fighting ISIS. They were never intended to engage in combat and their withdrawal will have no impact on the outcome of the Syrian civil war. When the limited U.S. military intervention in Syria was first authorized by the Obama administration, all local allies, such as YPG, were expressly forbidden to use U.S.-supplied military equipment against pro-Assad’s forces in the civil war.
ISIS has been ousted from almost all of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq, including the cities of Raqqa and Mosul, but there are still an estimated 20,000-30,000 ISIS fighters putting up a formidable resistance in isolated pockets they still control. But ISIS no longer poses the dire threat to the region which prompted the U.S. to form the anti-ISIS military coalition and begin attacking it in 2014. President Trump believes there is no reason for U.S. troops to remain at risk in Syria until the last ISIS fighter is killed.
U.S. TROOPS ARE VULNERABLE
Some conservative Republicans, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, expressed alarm last month when Trump announced his intention to bring all the U.S. troops home within a month, before the job of defeating ISIS was fully completed. Graham managed to negotiate an agreement with Trump to extend the withdrawal period from 30 days to 4 months. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton also tried to reassure nervous U.S. allies in the Middle East that the U.S. was not abandoning them, and that there will still be an adequate U.S. military presence in Iraq and elsewhere in the region to provide air support and other specialized military services when needed. But Trump has made it clear that he is anxious to keep his campaign promise bring U.S. troops home from war zones in Syria and Afghanistan as soon as possible, because as long as they are still there, they will be prime targets for terror attacks.
Their vulnerability was vividly illustrated by an ISIS suicide bombing attack last week in the Kurdish-Syrian town of Manjib, about 25 miles from the Turkish border. Four Americans, including two soldiers, a military contractor and a civilian defense official, were killed, three more were injured, and at least a dozen other people were wounded or killed in the blast. Manjib was liberated from ISIS control by American air power and Kurdish fighters in 2016, and has been under full coalition control ever since. The attack was carried out by an ISIS infiltrator wearing an explosive vest, which he detonated in a local restaurant which is popular with American soldiers.
Trump has argued that responsibility for eliminating local terror threats like ISIS or the Taliban ultimately belongs to the local governments, not the U.S. military. If Assad and his allies want to retake control of all Syrian territory, then eliminating ISIS from that territory should be their responsibility. The Syrian army, Iran and Russia certainly have the military capability to do the job. During the presidential campaign, Trump condemned the U.S. effort at nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq as a tremendous waste of U.S. taxpayer money which accomplished very little and which would have been much better spent at home in the U.S.
CRITICISM AND RESIGNATIONS
Historically, Democrats have tended to agree with that skeptical view of U.S. military adventures abroad, by opposing the Vietnam and Iraq wars. But in this case, many Democrats abandoned their traditional anti-war stance in order to join the media bandwagon condemning Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, mostly, it seemed, because Trump had proposed it.
After the bombing last week in Manjib, Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said, “From the beginning, I thought the president was wrong” [in ordering the withdrawal]. It was a strategic mistake for the whole region.”
There were also strong objections raised by two members of the Trump administration who tendered their resignations when they first learned of the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. One was from Defense Secretary James Mattis, whose letter of resignation cited his broader disagreement with Trump’s point of view on national defense issues. The other was Brett McGurk, who had been appointed by President Obama as a special envoy to the members of the coalition fighting ISIS, and who said that he could no longer defend the administration’s policy in Syria.
One of the few prominent figures in Washington to remain steadfast in support of Trump’s decision was Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. He declared, “I stand with the president in putting America First, bringing our troops home and declaring victory.” After meeting with Trump at the White House, Senator Paul issued a second statement saying he had “never been prouder” of the president, who “stood up for a strong America and steadfastly opposed foreign wars.”
Trump’s critics faulted him for abandoning the Kurds who had been so valuable in the fighting to recapture Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS. But the YPG was fighting ISIS primarily for their own reasons, to liberate the many Kurdish towns and villages which ISIS had captured during its rapid expansion in 2014. Kurdish leaders hoped that these would eventually form the nucleus of an independent Kurdish state. Their participation in the U.S.-led coalition was always an alliance of convenience, with no long term promises made on either side.
Understanding that they will shortly be losing their American military umbrella, Kurdish leaders have already begun negotiations with the Assad regime to arrange for protection against threats by Turkish President Erdogan to send his troops across the border into Syria to attack the Kurdish-controlled enclaves there.
The Turkish threat against the Kurds may have been the reason why Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from Syria when he did. He did not want U.S. troops in Syria to get caught between two warring allies, the Kurdish guerillas who played a key role in defeating ISIS on the ground and Turkey, a powerful U.S. ally which maintains the second largest military force in NATO.
OBAMA’S NAIVE IRANIAN POLICY
The U.S. military presence in Syria was a byproduct of the need to eliminate the ISIS enclaves there, and was never intended to be a threat to Assad. On the contrary, from the beginning of his administration, in 2009, President Obama had made the decision to abandon Syria to Assad’s control as part of his pivot towards Iran and away from America’s traditional allies in the region for the past 30 years: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel.
Obama convinced himself that the best way to extricate U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East from the challenge of endless confrontation with Iran was to find a way to remove the threat from its renegade nuclear program. He naively believed that would begin the process of transforming Iran from an outlaw state into a member in good standing of the international community.
Obama realized that making peace with Iran required him to accept its closest allies as well, including Russia and the Assad regime and directed the members of his administration, General Mattis and career diplomat McGurk, to fashion a foreign policy based upon that agenda. At one point, in 2012, senior members of the Obama administration, including then-Secretary of State Clinton, recommended providing military aid to the pro-Western Syrian opposition groups at a point when Assad’s regime seemed to be teetering on the edge of collapse. In the end, Obama vetoed the idea, and the opportunity to overthrow Assad when he was weakest was lost.
The pro-Western Syrian opposition groups became frustrated waiting for the promised American aid that never materialized. They were eventually taken over by Islamic terrorist groups affiliated with al Qaeda and anti-Assad Arab regimes. Meanwhile, Iran and Russia determined separately that Assad was too valuable an ally to lose, and decided to give him the military and economic support he needed to turn the tide on the battlefield.
The Obama administration was not willing to match the Russian and Iranian commitment to the preservation of the Assad regime. Its Middle East agenda was dominated by Obama’s desire to reach a nuclear deal with Iran which he was convinced would be the main foreign policy legacy of his presidency. Bashar Assad’s war crimes and the unexpected emergence of ISIS as a threat to the stability of the region were treated as side issues.
McGurk, who was appointed by Obama as deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran, was tasked to carry out Obama’s Iran-centric regional strategy, while keeping the simmering civil war in Syria and the growing menace from ISIS from spinning out of control.
General Mattis, during this period, was the head of the United States Central Command. Part of his job was to keep the Syrian civil war from spinning out of control. He recommended that the U.S. take a more aggressive stand against Iranian aggression by taking covert action to disrupt its arms shipments to Syria and to Yemen, where it was supporting a revolt against the Western-supported government. But the Obama administration rejected Mattis’ recommendations.
LEGACY OF A WEAK PRESIDENT
Another turning point came in 2013, when Assad was caught using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, despite an explicit warning from Obama not to do so. In the end, Obama was unwilling to carry out his public threat to punish Assad and turned instead to Russia’s Putin to negotiate a face-saving deal with Syria to voluntarily give up its chemical weapons. Characteristically, Obama again did nothing to enforce the deal when Assad cheated on its provisions.
At each turn, Obama’s policy decisions strengthened Assad and Putin and made the U.S. seem weak and unreliable to its traditional allies who felt betrayed by the Iran nuclear deal.
By the time President Obama left office, the outcome of the civil war in Syria was determined. The massive military support from Iran and Russia had turned the tide decisively in Assad’s favor.
Meanwhile, the main U.S. focus in the region had become defeating ISIS. By unwisely agreeing to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, Obama had surrendered control of Iraq to an increasingly Iranian-influenced Shiite government. It was so corrupt and incompetent that the U.S. trained Iraqi army broke and ran when it was first confronted by ISIS on the battlefield in 2014.
Obama then made another deal with the devil by agreeing to provide support to the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) to prevent Iraq from being overrun completely by ISIS. Iraq was saved, but only as an Iranian-controlled puppet state. The Obama administration made a similar deal with Hezbollah to “stabilize” the ineffective Lebanese government against the threat from ISIS and to support the pro-Iranian Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
THE SITUATION TRUMP INHERITED
This was the situation which President Trump inherited from Obama when he took office in January 2017. Trump appointed Mattis to be his Secretary of State and ordered him to apply the full might of the U.S. military to complete the job of defeating ISIS as rapidly as possible. Aside from that, Mattis saw his job as maintaining the status quo Trump had inherited in the region by avoiding a direct confrontation with Iran. That meant tolerating the military presence of Iran and Russia in Syria as they ruthlessly crushed Assad’s remaining opponents in the Syrian civil war.
Trump allowed McGurk to continue in the last job that Obama gave him, coordinating with the members of the anti-ISIS coalition. But McGurk is still committed to Obama’s flawed vision for the future of the Middle East, with Assad still in power, propped up by Iranian and Russian military force.
Mattis is widely respected as a military genius, but he was also leery of disturbing the Syrian status quo. When Assad was caught using chemical weapons on civilians again, Mattis could have given Trump a plan to hurt Iran by crippling Assad’s government with U.S. military force. But Mattis was opposed to a full scale campaign to punish Assad, and instead put together one-time missile strikes on Syrian military targets which had no long-term deterrent effect on Assad or Iran.
The result is that Assad is well on the way to regaining full control of his country and getting away with war crimes responsible for the deaths of half a million Syrians and the displacement of 10 million refugees.
The U.S. turned down its best opportunity to play a constructive role in Syria’s future by failing to force an end to the civil war seven years ago. The future of Syria is now in other hands.
With the effective defeat of ISIS in the region, the small U.S. military presence in Syria has become meaningless, and hence, unnecessary. Trump may be right. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to leave Syria and wait until a better opportunity arises to play a positive role there.
Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria was forced by a decade of failure of U.S. policy toward Syria. The main error can be traced back to Obama’s foreign policy fantasy that the U.S. could solve all of its problems in the region by trying to appease Iran in much the same way that the British and French tried to appease the Germans at Munich.
DEALING WITH THE CONSEQUENCES OF FAILURE
Now Trump must deal with the real world consequences of the failed foreign policy he has inherited.
He has made a good start by reinstating the sanctions on Iran, repudiating the fundamentally flawed 2015 nuclear deal, and supporting the formation of a regional counter-coalition, including the main Sunni Arab states and Israel to resist Iran’s growing influence. But the U.S. has yet to come up with an effective strategy to defeat Vladimir Putin’s efforts to make Russia a superpower again by using a combination of military intimidation and subversion.
The U.S. is fortunate in one way. It can afford to turn its back on the situation in Syria for the time being and continue to help our friends in the region focus on their common enemy, Iran.
Israel does not have that luxury. Thanks to the American failure to contain the Iranian menace, it is now perched along Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon.
With the destruction of six Hebollah tunnels on the Lebanese border, and a daytime attack on the Damascus airport designed to disrupt air shipments of advanced weapons from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the undeclared war between Israel and Iran has reached a new level of intensity.
The lone Iranian surface-to-surface missile launched at the ski slopes of Mt. Hermon is another warning to the residents of northern Israel that Israel’s missile defense systems may soon face their most difficult challenge yet.
ISRAEL’S DEFENSIVE STRATEGY
Israel is also using psychological warfare to fight the Iranian threat. As one of his last acts before retiring as the Israeli army’s chief of staff, General Gadi Eisenkot revealed the essence of Israel’s defensive strategy along the northern border. In an interview with New York Times reporter Brett Stephens, Eisenkot described “the campaign between wars” designed to slow down the enemy’s preparations for the next conflict. Eisenkot also concentrated Israel’s military efforts on its main enemy, Iran, paid less attention to Hamas’ efforts to create trouble along the Gaza border.
Eisenkot noted that Israel’s initial attacks on Syria were aimed at disrupting Iranian shipments of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah. That strategy changed when Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, brought more than 20,000 Shiite fighters into Syria and began preparing them to invade northern Israel. Starting in January, 2017, the Israeli air force changed its tactics, and started attacking these troop concentrations on a nearly daily basis. The Israeli general said that during the year 2018, the Israeli air force dropped 2,000 bombs on Iranian positions in Syria. These attacks forced Suleimani to move some of his fighters back from the Israeli border and transfer others to Iraq. Eisenkot attributed the success of operations against Iranian forces in southern Syria to superior Israeli intelligence capabilities and air superiority, and a determination to act on the information they have.
He said that the army has disrupted Hezbollah’s plans to invade and conquer part of the Gallil. In addition to the destruction of the terror tunnels, the army has also begun to attack Hezbollah bases on the Syrian side of the Golan border which were meant to serve as a second front. Eisenkot also claimed that Hezbollah has not yet been unable to upgrade the accuracy of most of its medium and longer range missiles.
The Israeli military believes in the concept of deterrence, so one should take with a grain of salt comments made by an Israeli general to a reporter from the New York Times. But even if some of Eisenkot’s claims are exaggerated, his interview is further proof that the rules of engagement are changing on both sides, and that the Israeli military is expecting and diligently preparing for war with Iran and Hezbollah along the length of its northern border.