Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

How Trump Thwarted Calculated Israeli Effort to Keep U.S. in Syria | The American Conservative

Posted by M. C. on January 19, 2019

Will congress ever get from under the Likud’s thumb? Do they want to?


The Pentagon was not the only party pressing Donald Trump to keep troops in Syria last year. It turns out the Israeli government and its supporters in Washington were working very hard to get the Trump administration to use America’s military presence there to support an Israeli campaign of airstrikes aimed at threatening war with Iran.

The Israeli strategy was aimed at dividing Russia from Iran and thus putting pressure on Tehran to withdraw its military personnel from Syria. A campaign by a pro-Israel think tank actually succeeded in getting such a policy ready for Trump’s approval last fall—although it was not supported by some Pentagon officials.

The story of the Israel lobby’s latest attempt to capture American policy, recounted here for the first time, reveals just how far Israel was able to reach into the Trump administration before the president personally intervened…

To pursue that objective, the Israelis adopted an ambitious strategy to create the impression that war could break out in Syria between Israel and Iran if the Russians didn’t intervene and force the Iranians out. On April 18, Dror Michman, a senior member of Netanyahu’s staff who had been on leave as visiting fellow at Brookings Institute, outlined that strategy in public for the first time. Michman explained that Israel had stepped up its strikes in Syria, which he said might well provoke Iranian military retaliation.

Michman acknowledged that the Israeli ability to carry out such a bombing in Syria could freely disappear at any time because of a Russian decision to provide their most advanced air defense system to the Syrian government (which was reportedly completed in late November). His comments were meant as a spur towards an intensive effort to mobilize Washington on Israel’s behalf.

The think tank on which Israel had long depended to influence U.S. policy—the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), founded by the leadership of AIPAC in 1985—was already working on that problem. On April 13, a WINEP policy proposal by a senior fellow, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, cleverly welcomed Trump’s idea of pulling out U.S. troops—but not all of them. Jeffrey suggested that the United States could reduce most of its ground forces in Syria over nine to 12 months, and then rely mainly on airpower over Syria to carry out a mission he called a “show of force” to “shape Russian and Iranian decisions.”…

In a State Department briefing on December 3, Jeffrey boldly restated Bolton’s position, asserting that the U.S. military would remain in Syria “until our conditions—enduring defeat of ISIL, as was said earlier, the withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the entirety of Syria, and an irreversible political process [are fulfilled].”

The pro-Israel hawks were walking on thin ice. To get foreign policy decisions approved, Bolton had substituted one-on-one conversations for formal meetings, enhancing his own power and pushing through a new policy in support of the Israeli strategy.

Nevertheless, Trump informed Mattis, Pompeo, and Bolton of his decision to withdraw from Syria on Monday, December 17, and the three officials tried to get Trump to change his mind on Monday and Tuesday before giving up Tuesday night. Netanyahu himself spoke with Trump once and Pompeo twice before Trump’s December 19 announcement.

So Trump knew that in going ahead with the withdrawal plan, he would face the wrath of not just the national security elite but Israel and its supporters. He went ahead with his announcement anyway, reflecting an important shift in his political priorities.

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