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Top US Israel lobby turns against Trump over Syria withdrawal

US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria has created a serious policy dispute with Israel, with an influential pro-Israel lobby turning against the President for the first time since he took office.

Published: December 27, 2018, 7:54 am

    The statement released by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Thursday after the announcement of the withdrawal of 2 000 American troops from Syria has coincided with reports of Jerusalem feeling “betrayed”.

    An unnamed diplomatic official described the decision as a “blow” to Israel in Hebrew-language media and The New York Times reported that Israeli intelligence officials said they “felt betrayed by the United States withdrawal”.

    The major shift at AIPAC comes after two years in which Jewish Americans endorsed Trump’s Middle East policies. Trump’s decisions to relocate the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as well as to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, were very popular in the Knesset as well as with the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US.

    Last week however, AIPAC retweeted a number of senators – both Democrats and Republicans – who had harshly criticised the US decision on Syria, calling it a “huge mistake” and “ill-informed and hasty”.

    It is the first time ever that AIPAC supported such strong-worded criticism against Trump.

    The AIPAC statement focused on the “damage control” that would be necessary after the American withdrawal, explaining that would is “imperative that Iran and Hezbollah are prevented from exploiting this development to further destabilize the region and threaten our allies. The administration should work with our regional allies and take steps to counter the mounting aggression of Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah.

    “Iran must not be allowed to have a permanent military presence in Syria, which is counter to US interests and threatens the peace and security of the region,” AIPAC said.

    The American Jewish Committee was even more furious in criticising the pullout: “We urge President Trump to reconsider withdrawing all US troops from Syria,” the organisation said in a statement. “They have performed heroic service, but their job isn’t over. The only winners will be Russia and Iran — and a resurgent Islamic State. Why would we possibly cede ground to them? Stay the course!”

    Another Jewish think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, accused Trump of ceding Syria to the Iranians. Chief executive, Mark Dubowitz strongly criticised Trump.

    “Trump’s withdrawal has severely weakened his own Iran policy, signaling boredom, fickleness, fatigue, and fear,” Dubowitz said. He also wrote in a tweet addressed to Trump: “you just gutted your Iran policy and screwed so many of our allies and emboldened so many of our enemies, that I’ve lost count.”

    One senior official at a pro-Israel organisation, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Haaretz : “Trump is very unpopular among the broader Jewish community, but older Jews who donate to pro-Israel causes are usually supportive of his Middle East policies, and many of them think his sins should be forgiven because he’s been such a great friend to the state of Israel. So when prominent voices in the pro-Israel community speak out against him like that, they risk losing some supporters, and also their own influence and ties within the administration.”

    The same official suggested that Trump could “promise Israel a green light for more daring military operations against Hezbollah. He could announce new sanctions against Iran. His peace plan could bring Israel closer to Saudi Arabia”.

    Bill Kristol, the former editor of the now defunct Weekly Standard and one of Trump’s most vocal critics, told Haaretz : “I’ve always thought that even if he is good for Israel in certain ways, his ‘America first’ world view of retreat and withdrawal from the world will ultimately be bad for Israel.”

    Trump has appeared unfazed by Jewish criticism. On Wednesday said he was not worried that pulling troops out of Syria could endanger Israel, because America gives billions of dollars to Israel in military aid. In his first official visit to the conflict zone in Iraq, he defended his decision and said the withdrawal would not put Israel in jeopardy.

    “Well, I don’t see it. I spoke with Bibi,” he said, calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname.

    The US President explained: “We’re going to take good care of Israel. Israel is going to be good. But we give Israel $4,5 billion a year. And we give them, frankly, a lot more money than that, if you look at the books — a lot more money than that. And they’ve been doing a very good job for themselves.”

    He added: “The United States cannot continue to be the policeman of the world. We don’t want to do that.”

    Trump may be signalling an intent to maintain legality, since American troops on the ground in Syria remain there in violation of international law. The Americans do not even have a sound reason for the Authorization for Use of Military Force.

    They have been using the justification for going after Osama Bin Laden as the green light for trying to destroy the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

    A source told FWM that even though the US has a very small footprint in Syrian with a little more than 2000 Special Ops and Special Forces personnel, no conventional forces were deployed as in Iraq in 2004 when more than 6000 Marines stormed Fallujah.

    The troops that have been in Syria, are doing training, advising assistance, and intelligence collection only since the main killing force have been drones.

    “’Withdrawing’ from Syria does not affect or limit drone attacks. The drones have been our contribution to killing ISIS in Syria. The reality is that our base in Al Tanf has been there to keep the Russians, Syrians and Iranians out of the area,” the source explained.

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