Jewish leaders in the U.S., and pundits in the Israeli press, have generally been critical of President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from a Syria-Turkey border zone, concerned about the fate of the Kurdish people. Some describe it as a bad omen for Israel.
That concern, while legitimate, ignores Trump’s long-term strategy in the region and the legitimate interest Turkey has in removing an armed force from its border — an interest Israel shares.
Israel has invaded southern Lebanon in two previous wars to disarm terrorist militias that had used the territory to launch terror attacks against its civilians.
In 1982, Israel invaded to remove Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) guerrillas; in 2006, Israel fought back against Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
It is likely that Israel will have to invade Lebanon again in a future war to disarm Hezbollah, which abuses the local civilian population as human shields.
Yes, there are important differences between the two cases. The threat from Hezbollah to Israel is more potent than the threat from Kurdish forces to Turkey. Moreover, Israel is meticulous about human rights; Turkey is not. The Turkish government is moving toward autocracy and extremism; Israeli democracy is vibrant and healthy.
Yet the same arguments being deployed against Turkey will be used against Israel. That should give pro-Israel critics pause.
Interestingly, few of Trump’s critics, at home or abroad, have appealed to the United Nations to intervene. That is a precedent that serves Israel’s interests, since the UN invariably weighs in agains Israel when it has to go to war.
Some commentators have accused Trump of abandoning the Kurds, an ally in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Yet Turkey is also an ally — one to which the U.S. is bound by the NATO treaty. (Indeed, many of the same critics of Trump’s decision today were accusing him of abandoning NATO yesterday).
The U.S has no formal agreement with the Kurds, who are distributed across several states and deeply divided by faction and nationality.
Critics contend, correctly, that Turkey has becoming less reliable as an ally in recent decades. But it is not so easy to unravel the alliance. Breaking ranks with Turkey would damage NATO in the face of advancing threats from Russia and China. Moreover, the U.S. has strategic forces in Turkey, including (likely) nuclear weapons. Would it be worth risking those forces, and those weapons, over the Kurds? Perhaps, but few critics have bothered to consider the cost.
In any case, the U.S. has not abandoned the Kurds. On Tuesday, Russia and Syria announced joint patrols of the border, and Kurdish forces agreed to withdraw 30km outside the region. General Mazloum Abdi, the pre-eminennt leader of the Kurdish forces in the area, thanked Trump for stopping the Turkish advance — a feat the administration proudly accomplished through the use of economic sanctions without, as Trump noted, “spilling American blood.”
Some have argued that Trump has strengthened Iran by pulling out of Syria. If so, Iran has failed to notice. In fact, Iran has protested against Turkey’s invasion of Syria, and Turkey’s president criticized Iran before meeting Russia this week.
If Trump were not building up regional U.S. forces to deter Iran, after pulling out of the nuclear deal and increasing sanctions on Iran’s economy, the critics might have a point. But the U.S. position on Iran remains strong.
In fact, Trump has arguably made a military threat to Iran more credible. By withdrawing U.S. forces from a fight in which American interests are conflicted at best, Trump is preserving political capital to support a potential war effort where U.S. interests are clear.
While U.S. troops are authorized to be in Syria to fight terror under the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, Congress has never authorized an American military mission to keep the peace between Turkey and the Kurdish militias. A future war against Iran — should it be necessary — would be harder to defend amidst “mission creep” in Syria.
Those who argue that withdrawing from Syria means threatening the alliance with Israel are ignoring Trump’s outstanding record as the most pro-Israel president in U.S. history, as well as the fact that the alliance with Israel is a permanent one.
If anything, Israel’s example shows the weaknesses in the Kurdish cause. When the British planned to withdraw from Palestine in 1947-48, the Zionists prepared for statehood — politically, diplomatically, and militarily.
Trump began talking about withdrawing from Syria last year. In the year since, Kurdish leaders appear to have done little to prepare for the day after, or even appealed for peace talks.
Moreover, when Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in a referendum in 2017, few of those who criticize Trump’s policy in Syria today rushed to the Kurds’ defense as the Iraqi military rushed into Kurdish-held territory to quash any such notion.
Israel has been America’s best ally because it has taken responsibility for its own destiny. Whatever the merits of the Kurdish cause, it has lacked leadership, organization, unity, and support.
Therefore, while there are good reasons to be concerned about the fate of Kurdish civilians, much of the criticism of Trump’s decision is overblown. The situation is complicated and there are no easy solutions.
Criticism is legitimate, but pro-Israel critics in particular ought to be far more careful about their condemnations.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He earned an A.B. in Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard College, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.