Trump’s “America First” Policy Puts Israel in Danger
Recently, a U.S. President made a reckless decision that aligned perfectly with Iran’s interests and dealt a very heavy strategic blow to Israel’s security. No, I’m not referring to President Obama’s 2015 negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the “Iran Deal,” but rather to President Trump’s recent decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria.
Although both decisions have been detrimental to Israel’s security, the pro-Israel community appears to have treated them differently. In response to the Iran Deal, pro-Israel organizations launched a long, sustained lobbying effort to try to stop its ratification, and some even accused Obama of hostility towards Israel. However, we have barely heard any response from these groups to Trump’s recent Syria decision. AIPAC, for example, merely put out a vague, one-paragraph statement that is careful to not directly criticize Trump. As far as I know, none of the pro-Israel organizations that are always trying to rile up their followers against anti-Israel activity have made any public campaign to convince Trump to change his mind. Why are Israel supporters letting him off easy?
Since there has been no public campaign against Trump’s decision, some may not even realize how bad the U.S. troop pullout is for Israel’s security. To fully understand the potential danger of the pullout, it is necessary to understand the context of the Syrian Civil War.
Iran supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war because his regime’s survival is vital for Iran to achieve their goal of spreading their influence to Lebanon, and ultimately, to Israel’s northern border. Throughout the war, Iran has been giving military and financial support to Hezbollah and various other Shiite militias that operate near the Golan Heights. According to the IDF, these militias have become an important part of Assad’s coalition and will ensure a significant Iranian influence in Syria for years to come.
Of all these militias, Hezbollah stands as the biggest threat to Israel. With all the unrest in the Gaza Strip, there’s been a lot of media attention on Hamas, but people shouldn’t forget that Hezbollah is actually much more powerful. While Hamas is thought to have around 12,000 rockets, Hezbollah is estimated to have around 130,000, almost 11 times as many. Hezbollah’s rockets are also generally more precise and advanced, with many capable of reaching all of Israel’s populated areas, and with the precision to be aimed specifically at military bases or strategic infrastructure. Unlike Hamas, they also possess some capability to counter the IDF’s tanks and fighter jets, making any IDF operation against them very risky.
On the home front, the IDF itself reports that a war with Hezbollah could lead to hundreds of civilian casualties, thousands of homes hit, and hundreds of thousands evacuated. To compare, of all three of Israel’s operations in Gaza, “only” 13 Israeli citizens were killed. Essentially, a war with Hezbollah carries a great risk of much higher military and civilian death tolls than Israelis have become accustomed to in recent years. But this is not the biggest danger Hezbollah poses.
Iran has a strategic reason for supporting Hezbollah, besides for its similar hatred of Israel. The Iranian government understands that it cannot defeat Israel in a conventional war, therefore, its strategy, as laid out in Ayatollah Khamenei’s book Palestine, is to have Hezbollah and other Shiite militias make life increasingly unbearable and dangerous for Israeli citizens. They hope that a constant barrage of precision rockets and other weaponry will force enough Jews to leave Israel, creating a clear Palestinian majority between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. With Iran entrenching itself near the Golan Heights, arming Hezbollah and other Shiite militias, and there already being an almost equal number of Jews and Arabs in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Iran’s long term strategy becomes less ridiculous of a prospect than it may have originally appeared. Remember that Israel’s other major terrorist enemy, Hamas, is blockaded in the Gaza Strip. But Assad is expected to let Iran continue delivering more arms to Hezbollah and their other allies. This is why the U.S. presence in Syria is so vital for Israel’s security.
The U.S. troops serve as both a physical and psychological deterrent against Iran. Currently deployed in northeast Syria, on the route between Iran and the Israeli border, the troops’ mere presence forces Iran to think twice before moving weapons and equipment in that direction. With the U.S.’s tacit support, Israel has the leeway to conduct airstrikes on Iranian bases and terrorist training camps near the Golan Heights. Now, however, Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria essentially leaves a vacuum that will be filled by Iran. The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) reports in a strategic assessment that the U.S.’s departure “leaves Israel alone in the campaign against Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria,” and ensures that Israel will not be able to drive them out. To put it bluntly, Trump just gifted Iran, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-backed militias a free route to Israel.
If Iran intensifies its transfers of weapons and manpower within Syria, which is likely because of the departure of U.S. troops, Israel will be stuck with the options of sitting quietly while their enemies get stronger or conducting airstrikes that could lead to war.
Trump didn’t leave Syria because he dislikes Israel, rather because it fits with his isolationist, “America First” foreign policy. He has shown that he views international alliances as transactional relationships, not moral or ideological ones, and it was always a huge mistake for Israel supporters to believe that Trump views America’s alliance with Israel any differently. He promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem because he knew it would help him win over the evangelical Christian wing of the Republican electorate, and his decision to leave the Iran deal fits with his isolationist policy anyway. He has shown his true hand by leaving Israel vulnerable to Iranian expansionism and the potential of a devastating war. When questioned if he was concerned that the U.S. leaving Syria would hurt Israel, Trump said “We give Israel $4.5 billion dollars a year.” Imagine how plenty of Israel supporters would have reacted if Obama had been so flippant about Israel’s security?
Given all the danger Trump has put Israel in by unilaterally withdrawing from Syria, I don’t understand why the pro-Israel community isn’t outraged. Perhaps some find it easier to be loudly “pro-Israel” when the object of their ire is a Democratic president, as opposed to a Republican one who has made a few symbolic gestures towards Israel supporters. In any case, this lack of a response has been nothing less than a dereliction of duty by those who claim to be pro-Israel. It would be terrible if Israel’s security became just another petty partisan issue, to be used when some view it as politically advantageous and ignored when they do not.
Photo Caption: A view of Israel’s border with Syria
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons