The U.S. evacuation of military forces from Syria is a grave threat to Israel, so we hear. Another reason to be afraid, right?
Wrong. U.S. forces were never in Syria to defend Israel. And anyway, when did we ever want the U.S. defending Israel with troops on the ground in the Mideast?
Let’s start with the basic tenet of Israeli policy for the last 70 years: Israel can count only on itself for its defense. The default action for foreign forces here has been to turn on Israel, blaming it for everything that goes wrong while failing to enforce its own terms of reference on the other side. UNIFIL, the United Nations “peacekeeping” force in south Lebanon, is the best example.
Israel routinely turns down suggestions of international guarantees if it withdraws from this or that territory. The argument is always the same — Israel can count only on itself for its own defense.
The presence or exit of 2,000 U.S. soldiers in Syria doesn’t change that.
Syria is part of a Middle East transformation in which new spheres of influence are being carved out. The Shiites, led by Iran, are extending their influence beyond their borders. The Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, are countering that push. So far the Saudis are messing up, witness the atrocity-rich fiasco and tragedy in Yemen. The U.S. is aiding the Saudis, but it’s likely to pull back because of criticism of its role.
That’s what can happen as conditions change. That’s what is happening in Syria.
The purpose here is not to assess the wisdom of a U.S. pullout from Syria in general — only how it would affect Israel.
As U.S.-backed secular Syrian rebels lost their battles against President Bashar Assad, the U.S. mission morphed into a fight against ISIS. Defeated in Iraq with U.S. involvement, ISIS today is less a military threat than a terrorist threat. The only seriously active military fronts involving ISIS-aligned forces are in Libya and Egypt’s Sinai.
Though there is an ISIS-related force just across the Israeli border in Sinai, it doesn’t bother Israel much. Part of the reason for that is covert Israeli assistance to Egypt in its struggle.
The more salient reason is — ISIS is not suicidal as a movement. It is clear what would happen to its encampments and forces if it ever launched a serious attack against Israel. In 2012, Islamist terrorists who killed 16 Egyptian soldiers on the Sinai border tried their luck crossing into Israel and they were quickly wiped out.
The certainty of devastating Israeli retaliation — not just an air strike here and an artillery shell there — is how Israel deters its enemies.
So what’s the effect when Israelis and their supporters go off whining and wailing in fear about the disastrous consequences to Israel’s security of the U.S. pulling its tiny contingent of troops out of Syria? Makes it sound like we can’t defend ourselves anymore. But we most certainly can.
As the Syrian civil war winds down, it’s clear that there will be no pro-Western, democratic, peace-loving regime in Syria. Well, there never was. And yet, even after a surprise attack in 1973 when Israel was at its weakest, Israel has managed to defend itself.
But now, fearful critics warn, Iran is involved. That’s not different, either. Iran has been the chief backer of the Assad regime for decades. Hezbollah’s weapons have always come from Iran through Syria to Lebanon. Israel is getting better at interdicting some of the shipments, now that Syria, for all practical purposes, no longer exists as a cohesive entity after six years of debilitating civil war.
And that’s the main point. The forces at play in Syria are part of that regional realignment that started with the Arab Spring in 2011. Despite attempts by some in Israel to make it sound otherwise for political gain — Israel is not a party to that process and is not a key target of any of the participants. If the Arab Spring proved anything, it’s that the Israel-Arab conflict is not the key to the Mideast. Just the opposite. Israel is enjoying warmer ties with some Arab states, partly because that truth is becoming self-evident.
After an American pullout from Syria, Israel might need to increase its military vigilance, send a signal or two from time to time. Routine measures. So let’s settle back and live our lives, because a U.S. evacuation would change nothing of importance.
Mark Lavie has been covering the Mideast since 1972. You can find his new book, “Why Are We Still Afraid? A Reporter’s 46-year Story of Israel Growing Strong,” at marklavieauthor.com.