Bissane al-Sheikh | Journalist, writer, and media consultant based in Istanbul, former reporter at the Al-Hayat newspaper
Israel will react to an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Syria in line with its fundamental strategic interests, primarily containing the threat from Iran and its proxies, whose influence would likely increase if the American pullout created a political vacuum. Therefore, it is in Israel’s interest to push for a delay in the U.S. withdrawal, allowing time for it to draft a defensive strategy to preserve Israeli security and margin of maneuver to attack Iranian targets in and around Damascus. Signs of a delay have been evident in recent days as the Trump administration has set conditions for its withdrawal.
Washington’s recent commitment to protecting its Kurdish allies in the region reopens the door to a partial Turkish entry into Manbij and Tell Abiad, because the Turks will need to be compensated in some way. This Turkish presence will secure a buffer zone against Iranian influence there, or temporarily freeze the situation until a political process takes shape. The Turkish presence could be reassuring to Israel, because despite the tumultuous relationship between Turkey and Israel, the two have long been committed to protecting their common security interests amid their differences.
However, Ankara may be unwilling to enter into a full confrontation with the Kurds if this is not backed by a U.S.-Russian understanding. From a Turkish point of view the Kurdish rebellion could be eliminated and its influence reduced simply by handing over the region to the Syrian regime and its Iranian allies. Iran is, of course, the most willing candidate to fill any vacuum left by Washington. Yet that means it would have an opportunity to impose its dominance in more of Syria and beyond. Israel will be watching such dynamics closely.
Robert Satloff | Executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Israel is likely to respond to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Syria, when it happens, in the same way it has responded ever since former president Barack Obama’s unenforced “red line” against the use of chemical weapons made it clear five years ago that Washington would invest little blood and treasure to affect the country’s political direction. The Israelis will continue to strike hard against any Iranian effort to establish a military industrial base in Syria, to transfer advanced weaponry to the country, or through it to Hezbollah, or to advance its forces or militias close to Israel’s border. While the U.S. decision to quit Syria is “significant,” as the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Gadi Eizenkot, has said, it does not alter the trajectory of U.S. policy, nor Israel’s strategic calculus.
Looking ahead, the key variables—for Israel and other regional actors—are whether the new Arab strategy of weaning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad away from Iran with honey rather than vinegar will reap results; whether the Russian-Iranian-Syrian alliance can survive an Assad victory; whether Turkey fulfills its promise to fight the Islamic State, or instead focuses its military power solely on crushing the Kurds in Syria; and whether tough economic sanctions alone can succeed in compelling the sort of profound change in Tehran that their American architects envision.
Mohanad Hage Ali | Communications director at the Carnegie Middle East Center, author of Nationalism, Transnationalism, and Political Islam: Hizbullah’s Institutional Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017)
The ultimate winners from a U.S. withdrawal, once it occurs, would be the Syrian regime and Russia. The unfolding scene in Manbij revealed a certain level of coordination between the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian regime, allowing Syrian forces to enter SDF-controlled territories without a fight. Given this reality, Israel’s only logical response would be increased reliance on Russia to ensure the containment of Iran’s presence in Syria. In return, Israel could help facilitate the Syrian regime’s normalization efforts and perhaps ease the current international boycott of a Syrian reconstruction process. Given the development of coordination between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council states over Iran in the past few years, the restoration of diplomatic relations between Arab states and Damascus and the potential Arab role in funding reconstruction could be viewed as an effort to contain Tehran’s role in post-conflict Syria.
Elliott Abrams | Senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, former deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor
Israel’s response will be felt in three ways. First, in Syria, Israel will continue and even increase its actions against Iran. It’s clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin does not object to such attacks, because, in my view, he does not want to see Syria fall entirely under Iranian control, and moreover now the United States will no longer be there to counsel Israeli restraint.
Second, the U.S. departure will persuade many Arab states that Israel is an invaluable ally against Iran, which will lead to even closer (though still mostly secret) collaboration between them and Israel.
Third, the U.S. departure will remind Israelis that in the end not even the Americans are a wholly reliable ally, and therefore that they must (in the old formula) defend themselves by themselves. This makes the prospect of Israeli withdrawals in the West Bank seem more dangerous and even less likely while the broader region is in turmoil.