Steinberg: Navigating Trump’s chaos in Syria

U.S. President Donald Trump (Michael Vadon/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Nobody – certainly not Israeli officials – should have been shocked by President Donald Trump’s decision to remove U.S. forces from northern Syria, abandoning the Kurds, opening the door for a Turkish invasion, and allowing ISIS terrorist detainees to escape.

Trump governs largely through deliberate chaos, and this move is entirely consistent. And there is some method in this madness  – Trump and many of his supporters are isolationists for whom involvement in the “endless” and “senseless” conflicts in the Middle East really is a waste of treasure and of the lives of American soldiers. (Obama had similar tendencies, and began the drawdown of U.S. military commitments in the Middle East.)

A less impulsive leader would have given his own forces and allies, including Israel, advance notice in order to prepare accordingly, but this is not Trump’s modus operandi.   

For all of these reasons, emotional responses, the usual hand-wringing and condemnations of Trump for abandoning the Kurdish people (will Israel be next?) are not particularly useful. Instead, the best strategy for Israel is to examine the long-term interests of all the powers involved, working together where possible, and in other cases, acting unilaterally to blunt growing threats. This is the essence of political realism, based on interests and power, as distinct from illusory sympathies and promises.

From a realist perspective, the Americans remain very powerful, and Trump might flip again, turning on his new friend, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan, particularly in the wake of images of mass suffering and destruction. So it would be prudent to continue to appease Trump, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been doing for the past three years, while not building on a reversal.

(Critics who argue that courting Trump was a massive failure tend to ignore Israel’s vulnerability to a vindictive president.)

Meanwhile, with the Americans out of the picture, Russia is likely to become even more powerful, so co-ordination and expansion of common interests with Putin are also important for Israel. For its own reasons, Moscow is wary of greater Iranian entrenchment in Syria, particularly as it appears that the danger to Assad has passed, and the dictatorship has re-established control in most of the country. For this reason, the Russian forces have essentially given the IDF a free hand to attack Iranian and Hezbollah positions and weapons convoys in Syria in recent years. In addition, Putin presumably realizes that Israel is capable of acting alone to protect its vital security interests, if necessary. Here again, Netanyahu’s strategic policies have been generally successful.


Next is Turkey, which could emerge more powerful if the invasion succeeds in crushing the Kurdish independence movement that Erdogan, like most of the Turkish elite, fears. In many ways, Erdogan governs like Trump, based on threats and chaos (but without Twitter), and he has used hostility to Israel, including coarse anti-Semitism, to promote his own power. However, it is possible that as the friction between Turkey and its old foes returns –  particularly Iran and Syria – including the spectre of terror attacks on Turkish forces and cities, Erdogan will seek to repair relations with Israel in order to counter terrorism and reduce his vulnerability. Nobody should rely on this scenario, but under the rules of political realism, neither should it be ruled out.

These are only some of the strategic calculations that face the Israeli leadership, which, at this time, is also in a state of confusion, as negotiations for a government continue. But the cold logic of political realism does not depend on the specific leaders. Netanyahu has many years of experience in such navigation, (including some failures), while his challenger, Benny Gantz, served as a high level IDF officer including chief of staff, under Netanyahu. If they are able to work together at least until the immediate crisis has passed, and before the next one, the combination will serve Israel’s strategic interests.