When pro-Israel people evaluate the U.S. president, they focus on his attitude toward Israel, but his views on the Middle East as a whole determine his stance on Israel, Michael Doran says.
The Middle East expert said Syria is a key difference. President Barack Obama sought to build up Kurdish forces to defeat Islamic State but overlooked Iran’s military buildup in the area in conjunction with Russia. President Donald Trump is keeping troops in the area to keep from losing Syria to Russia or Iran.
Doran, a senior adviser in the State Department and deputy assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, compared the Trump and Obama approaches to Syria, Israel and the Middle East during a Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Israel 70 Speakers Series event Wednesday, April 11, at Temple Sinai.
Trump must keep forces in Syria to block the route from Tehran to Beirut and to mediate between the Syrian Kurds and Turkey, Doran said.
“If we pick up and leave, the Syrian Kurds will go to the Russians and Iranians, and the Russians are going to exploit that position to become the primary interlocutors between the Turks and Kurds of Syria,” he said. “The Russians will then push the U.S. out once they have created a new order in the region and inevitably drive a wedge between Turkey and NATO.”
Trump and Obama both wanted to keep the Middle East at arm’s length, Doran said. But Obama wanted to treat everyone equally at a round table, and Trump prefers more of a rectangular table with U.S. allies on one side and enemies on the other.
Obama and Trump both made it a priority to defeat Islamic State, but Trump wants to contain Iran simultaneously, Doran said. “Everyone in Trump’s national security team regards Iran not just as a threat to Israel, but to the United States.”
Both presidents wanted to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said. For Obama, Israeli intransigence was the primary obstacle. For Trump, Palestinian instability keeps the conflict alive.
Doran said the greatest threat to Israel now is not the Palestinians, but the presence of Russia and Iran in Syria. To contain the threat, Israel has said no strategic weaponry should be moved from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, no raids into Israel should come from Syria, and no Iranian soldiers should be permitted on the Israeli-Syrian border.
Israel also has said that Iranians should stay away from the Jordanian border and that Syria should not become a permanent home to Iranian forces.
Israel has conducted military operations in Syria, risking conflict with Russia or Iran, to enforce those red lines, Doran said.
The Russians are in a military alliance with Iran and share the goal of reinforcing the Syrian regime of Bashar Al-Assad, Doran said. Israel has tried to strike an agreement with Russia by notifying it about efforts to enforce its red lines without asking for permission to do so.
“The theory that Israel has is that these operations will embarrass the Russians to the point they will put pressure on the Iranians, which will inevitably create tension between the two,” Doran said. “But it’s very dangerous because Israel could end up going to war with Russia.”
Israel had little diplomatic support in this game from Obama, though things have improved under Trump, Doran said. But Israel still seeks U.S. confirmation of a policy of military containment of Iran in Syria.
One factor that could work to Israel’s advantage is Trump’s comfort with the use of force, as he showed in the joint mission with Britain and France to strike Syrian chemical weapon sites Friday, April 13.
Doran said Israel and the United States should coordinate to contain Iran. “We are still a long way from that, but I think it would be better for the United States if we did this because it would send a very powerful message to Moscow and the Iranians that we are serious.”