(October 17, 2019 / JNS) The abrupt decision by U.S. President Donald Trump last week to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria has led to a major foreign-policy crisis in the region and worldwide.
Equally as important are the changing roles of Syria, Turkey, Russia, Iran and Israel in the immediate area. For the pro-Israel community, concern is escalating that the move will have major ramifications for Israel.
"President's Trump's greenlighting of Turkey's invasion of northern Syria and withdrawal of U.S. forces from there was an unforced disaster, which betrayed our Kurdish allies, has led to ISIS fighters escaping prison and further undermines U.S. credibility," JINSA president and CEO Michael Makovsky told JNS.
"The Kurds, who served as an obstacle to Iranian expansion, have naturally allied now with [Syrian President Bashar] Assad to help protect them, which serves Iran's interests and undermines Israel's," he continued. "Israel now faces more pressure and threats from Iran."
Turkey invaded northern Syria last week just days after Trump announced the U.S. military withdrawal, and after a phone call during which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apparently informed the president that he was going ahead with a long-planned move against America's Kurdish allies in the region. Almost immediately, the violence began as Turkish forces went full-throttle ahead with plans to secure Syrian territory.
The ensuing situation has led many in the pro-Israel community to express concern over how the decision will affect Israel, America's top ally in the Middle East. Already, Israelis have protested against Turkish violence against civilians and the Kurds. Some also question whether the situation may harm Trump's pro-Israel credentials by emboldening the Jewish state's enemies, while abandoning key allies like the Kurds.
"The decision by president was an impulsive one," Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS. "I am not sure he fully grasped what Ankara would do once he indicated that America would step aside in northern Syria. He is now scrambling to repair the damage, but it does not appear that the Turks are willing to halt their onslaught."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara on Thursday. The meeting came after Erdoğan initially refused talks with Pence and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pence's mission came one day after the White House made public a letter Trump wrote to Erdoğan on Oct. 9, encouraging him to make a deal with the Syrian Kurds.
On Thursday, Turkey agreed to a temporary ceasefire with the United States in northern Syria, following a five-hour meeting between Pence and Pompeo and Erdoğan.
Pence announced it would consist of YPG forces withdrawing from northern Syria and, in return, Turkey agreeing to a permanent ceasefire "to make sure peace and stability are the order of the day in this safe zone."
"Our team is already working with YPG personnel in the safe zone for an orderly withdrawal outside the 20-mile mark, and we're going to go forward together to bring peace and security to this region," he said. "I'm very confident of that."
Pence mentioned that U.S. sanctions against Turkey would be removed once a permanent ceasefire takes effect, and that Turkey fight ISIS and work with the United States to secure ISIS prisoners.
AS many as 1,000 ISIS prisoners have already escaped since the Turkish incursion on Oct. 9.
The president said in a statement on Monday that he had also raised tariffs on imports of Turkish steel back up to 50 percent—six months after they were reduced—and would immediately stop negotiations on what he said was a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey.
"Unfortunately, Turkey does not appear to be mitigating the humanitarian effects of its invasion," said Trump.
At the same time, Trump has criticized the Kurds as well. On Wednesday, he defended his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria even as criticism points to the United States having betrayed its Kurdish allies in the region.
In talking about the Kurds, who have helped the United States fight the Islamic State (ISIS) and other terror factions, the president said, "The Kurds are safer right now ... they are not angels, they are not angels." He added that they are not strong fighters without U.S. assistance.
'Destabilized a previously pacified area of Syria'
Schanzer said that "it's not at all clear what this means for Israel, if anything. If the U.S. withdrawal leads to Iranian consolidation of territory on Israel's doorstep, it would be a disaster for Israel. But for the moment, this appears to a problem primarily for the Kurds, who are rightly feeling spurned by the Trump administration."
In fact, Turkish forces are responsible for killing at least 200 civilians and for displacing more than 200,000 people.
Commenting on the ceasefire, a senior U.S. official told CNN that it "essentially validated what Turkey did."
"This is essentially the U.S. validating what Turkey did and allowing them to annex a portion of Syria and displace the Kurdish population," the official said.
Schanzer said the move by Trump in regards to the Kurds may unnerve other allies like Israel.
"Broadly speaking, the rest of America's allies in the region are likely wondering whether they, too, could be cast aside this easily. This decision does not reflect well on American foreign policy," he said.
Matthew Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy, told JNS that he believes that Trump views Israel differently than the Kurds.
At the end of the day, "President Trump still loves Israel," said Brodsky. "For him, it has always been a kishka issue because he feels it in his gut."
"Perhaps more than any outside advice or assessments he hears, he relies on his gut feelings to guide his decisions," he continued. "Unfortunately, that means there will be inconsistencies in creating and sticking to a wider strategy on a host of issues. No matter what advice Trump received, he always wanted to get out of Syria. That was also in his gut."
Nevertheless, Brodsky warned that "the consequences of that decision are uniformly bad not just for the Kurds, but for Israel and United States as well."
In a single phone conversation," said Brodsky, the president "traded away valuable American geopolitical and economic leverage, destabilized a previously pacified area of Syria, boosted Iran's entrenchment enterprise in Syria, ensured the resurgence of ISIS, enhanced Russia's role as a regional arbiter and served up our Kurdish allies on a silver platter to the virulently anti-Semitic and anti-American Turkish president: Erdoğan.
"In doing so," affirmed Brodsky, "he has undermined every active policy he was pursuing in the Middle East."