Tuesday night’s Israeli airstrikes on Hezbollah and Iranian targets in the outskirts of Damascus were reportedly the largest Israeli strikes in Syria since September.
Israel’s willingness to carry out the attacks, despite deteriorating relations with Russia, indicated that far from constraining Israel’s freedom of operation in Syria, the U.S. pullout may have the effect of empowering Israel to strike more freely.
A senior U.S. official told Breitbart News that without U.S forces in Syria, Israel wouldn’t need to worry that Iran and its allies in Hezbollah and the Syrian regime will effectively hold those forces hostage to Israeli operations by threatening to retaliate against the American forces in response to Israeli military strikes.
In a report that has yet to be corroborated, Jake Turx, senior White House correspondent for Ami magazine, which serves the Orthodox Jewish community in the U.S., reported along these lines Tuesday that far from opposing the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, Israel requested it.
According to Turx, Israel asked for U.S. forces to withdraw from Syria ahead of an Israeli winter offensive against Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria. Recent events, including Israel’s nearly operation to seal Hezbollah’s underground attack tunnels traversing the Lebanese border with Israel, indicate that Israel may be conducting shaping missions ahead of a larger-scale operation in Lebanon and Syria against Iran and Hezbollah.
So too, reports that the Kurds have made deals with Syrian President Bashar Assad that will mitigate at least some of the danger of a Turkish invasion signal that the U.S. withdrawal may not have the widely feared, devastating consequences for the Kurds.
Certainly, the fact that most of Syria’s oilfields are in the Kurdish-held areas of eastern Turkey lends credence to the view that Russia, to which Assad gave exclusive rights over Syria’s oilfields this past January, will not be willing to accept Turkish control in eastern Syria.
Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the President’s announcement that he is ordering the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, it is becoming clear that the most problematic aspect of the withdrawal is the one least discussed.
The apparent deal that President Donald Trump reached with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for Turkish forces to replace U.S. forces in the fight against ISIS in Syria is the most alarming aspect of Trump’s actions.
To get a sense of how destabilizing and inexplicable the apparent Trump-Erdogan deal is to U.S. interests and to U.S. allies, it is important to consider the timeline of events.
President Trump reportedly decided to order the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria during a telephone conversation with Erdogan on December 14.
Two days before their phone call, Erdogan repeated his past threats to attack Kurdish forces deployed with U.S. forces in Manbij in eastern Syria. Erdogan said, “We will begin our operation to free the east of the Euphrates [River] from the separatist organization within a few days. Our target is not the American soldiers. It is the terror organizations [i.e. American-allied YPG Kurdish forces] that are active in the region.”
He then voiced his anger at the U.S., saying, “The Americans are not being honest; they are still not removing the terrorists [ i.e. the allied Kurdish YPG forces from Manbij]. Therefore, we will do it.”
Trump’s December 14 conversation with Erdogan was part of a bid, spearheaded by the Pentagon. to dissuade Erdogan from invading Syrian territory and attacking the YPG forces operating with the American troops.
Strangely though, in his descriptions of his conversation with Erdogan on December 14, and of a subsequent conversation with the Turkish strongman on December 23, Trump did not mention that he was talking to Erdogan because Erdogan was threatening to attack U.S.-allied Kurdish forces deployed in Manbij.
Instead, Trump spoke approvingly of the prospect of Turkish forces serving as a stand-in for American troops.
On December 22, Trump tweeted, “ISIS is largely defeated and other local countries, including Turkey, should be able to easily take care of whatever remains. We’re coming home!”
The following day, Trump tweeted, “I just had a long and productive call with President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey. We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home. We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.”
Twelve hours later, Trump wrote, “President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria….and he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right “next door.” Our troops are coming home!”
On December 19, the State Department announced that the U.S. had agreed to sell Turkey two advanced Patriot anti-missile systems. Initially, it was widely presumed that the Patriot sale would come in place of Erdogan’s planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 surface to air missile system. But on Tuesday, Erdogan’s spokesman announced that the S-400 is on track and will not be affected by the Patriot deal.
Erdogan’s S-400 purchase has rightly been viewed as a frontal assault against NATO – of which Turkey is a member. The S-400 is not interoperational with NATO systems. It is widely feared that through the S-400 sale to Turkey, Russia will be able to neutralize the F-35’s stealth systems. Erdogan’s S-400 deal caused the Congress to block the transfer of F-35s to Turkey.
Turkey’s double dealing against NATO on the S-400 deal is not the least of the problems it poses for the U.S. and its allies. Erdogan’s pledge to obliterate the so-called “Islamic State,” or ISIS, has to be taken with a grain of salt.
True, Turkey belatedly joined the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. But it is also true that for several years, Turkey served as ISIS’s logistical base. Foreign jihadists joining ISIS from around the world assembled in Turkey and entered Syria from Turkey.
As a 2015 report in the Middle East Quarterly revealed, Turkey was the key purchaser of oil from ISIS-controlled areas in Syria. ISIS forces received medical care in Turkey.
Two senior Turkish journalists were arrested and charged with treason for documenting Turkish military personnel transferring weapons to Islamist forces in Syria. A U.S. citizen reporting for Iran’s Press TV was killed in a suspicious car accident after reporting that ISIS fighters were using World Food Organization vehicles to transit between Syria and Turkey.
And, of course, Turkish forces ostensibly involved in fighting ISIS in Syria have repeatedly trained their guns not on ISIS forces, but on Kurdish forces engaged in fighting ISIS.
So at a minimum, the idea that Turkey can be trusted to keep ISIS down in Syria is tendentious.
Then there is the fact that Turkey poses an acute threat to Israel. The same day Erdogan spoke with President Trump and convinced him to remove U.S. forces from Syria, he spoke at an anti-Israel conference in Istanbul. There, Erdogan compared Israel to Nazi Germany, and accused it of committing “cultural genocide” against the Palestinians.
“Today the Palestinians are subjected to pressures, violence and intimidation policies no less grave than the oppression done to the Jews during World War II,” he said to the crowd at the “Conference of the Association of Parliamentarians for Al-Quds [Jerusalem].”
Erdogan also used his speech to condemn the U.S. for recognizing that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and for relocating its embassy to the city, although he didn’t mention the U.S. by name.
In his words, Israel’s “crimes against humanity” are supported by “certain members of the UN Security Council.”
He then called for the world body to be reformed.
Evoking antisemitic conspiracy theories, Erdogan blamed the West for stoking conflict in the Muslim world for financial gain.
“When the tension escalates in the Islamic world, Western companies’ profits rise accordingly. When the conflicts escalate in the Middle East, Western governments sell more weapons,” he said.
In subsequent days, Erdogan’s foreign minister and defense minister accused Netanyahu of killing babies and of committing mass murder.
In shor, then, Turkey has a poor record of fighting terror, and credible allegations have been raised for years that Erdogan either turned a blind eye to ISIS operations on his territory or enabled its operation in Turkey.
At the same time, Erdogan has used his position as a member of the anti-ISIS coalition to attack Kurdish forces that played a central role in defeating ISIS.
Erdogan is, at a minimum, double dealing with the U.S. and Russia in relation to the Patriot and S-400 sales, playing one power against the other in a contest that harms the U.S. and NATO.
And Erdogan, who supports Hamas openly, is inciting antisemitism, war, and violence against Israel, thus putting Turkey in common cause with Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime.
It is hard to countenance Trump’s sudden faith in Erdogan. In August he doubled tariffs on Turkish steel exports to the U.S. to secure the release of U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson, whom Erdogan was effectively holding hostage. And yet, in the past week, Trump has repeatedly presented the same Erdogan as a responsible actor who can be trusted to fill America’s shoes in Syria.
Erdogan is not a responsible actor. He is a bully with imperialist aspirations that target the U.S.’s Sunni Arab allies, and with jihadist ambitions that threaten Israel, Europe, and the U.S. itself.
His empowerment in the framework of the U.S. withdrawal from Syria is by far the largest negative consequence of the move.
Caroline Glick is a world-renowned journalist and commentator on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, and the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East. Read more at www.CarolineGlick.com.