BEIRUT — When President Donald Trump suddenly declared that ISIS was defeated and decided to end America’s mission in Syria last month, he stunned members of his staff, key US allies, and military partners on the ground. But the president took the time to alert his closest ally in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in advance.
The reason is pretty clear. Israel has staunchly opposed an American withdrawal from Syria’s eight-year conflict out of fear that Iran and its proxies would move in to fill the vacuum. And Trump’s decision to withdraw roughly 2,000 US troops over the next four months comes at a particularly bad time for Israel, which is facing growing pressure from Iran in Syria and from Iran’s proxy, the Shia militant group Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
Netanyahu didn’t openly criticize the president’s decision, but members of his staff were quick to voice their misgivings — Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon called Trump’s decision “not good for us,” and Education Minister Naftali Bennett told Reuters that he’s concerned about Iran’s growing reach in Syria. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak also weighed in, tweeting that “Trump is deserting Syria and the Iranians are celebrating.”
But a few days after Trump’s decision, Netanyahu was talking tough, saying that Israel would “intensify” its fight against Iran in Syria. He added that it would do so with American “support and backing” — though it’s unclear what this would actually look like.
Regardless of what happens next, Trump’s decision to withdraw troops will embolden Iran. And if Israel escalates its campaign against both Iran and Hezbollah, war becomes much more likely.
In a region that’s already dealing with its fair share of unrest, that could be a very dangerous prospect indeed.
Israel and Iran have been engaged in a proxy war for decades. The Syria conflict made things worse.
Tensions between Israel and Iran are nothing new — the two countries have been enemies since the 1980s and early 1990s, when Iran began challenging Israel largely because of its role as the strongest American ally in the Middle East.
When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 during the Lebanese Civil War to wipe out Palestinian militias that were active in the country, Hezbollah, a militant Shia group, emerged with the stated purpose of expelling Israeli and Western troops. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was instrumental to the group’s rise, and provided weapons, funding, and guidance.
Hezbollah soon branded itself as the leader of Lebanon’s resistance to Israel, and when the Israeli army finally withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah’s militants flooded in to take their place. Tensions between Hezbollah and Israel resulted in a full-on war in July 2006 that left 158 Israelis and nearly 1,200 Lebanese, most of whom were civilians, dead.
Fast-forward to the present and Hezbollah has expanded its operations into Syria, Lebanon’s neighbor, where a civil war has been raging since 2011. Hezbollah, together with Iranian forces, has been helping the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stay afloat — and the two have opened up a new arena in which to threaten Israel in the process.
Israel, for its part, has made its opposition to a long-term Iranian presence in Syria clear by conducting hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets over the past year and a half. The most recent of these took place this week, when Israel apparently killed several high-ranking Hezbollah officers in Syria.
Though US troops were in Syria for the stated purpose of wiping out ISIS, one of Trump’s major foreign policy goals is to counter Iran’s influence in the region. To this effect, the Americans had helped Israel push back on Iran. An American base called al-Tanf had acted as a key bulwark, blocking Iran from shipping weapons from Iraq across Syria into Hezbollah’s hands in Lebanon.
But now, with the news that US troops are leaving, this base will be closing. And the withdrawal of American forces could also allow Iran and its proxies, which include militias from Iraq, to sweep in and fill the void — much to the chagrin of the Israelis.
Israel also has more to worry about than Iran’s presence in Syria. Hezbollah is entrenched across the border in Lebanon — and things on this front seem to be heating up.
“[A] challenge from the Israeli perspective is the cost for the Israelis to operate against Iran inside of Syria and Iran inside of Lebanon is growing by the month,” Nicholas Heras, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, DC, told me. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for the Israelis to take this all up on their own.”
The chances of another war between Hezbollah and Israel are increasing
Tensions along the border between Israel and Lebanon rose to their highest point in years recently when Israel launched Operation Northern Shield, a military effort to destroy a series of cross-border tunnels that Hezbollah had built since its last war with Israel in 2006.
No real conflict has broken out so far, but verbal disputes erupted between the Israeli and Lebanese armies last month, and Israeli soldiers fired shots. In addition, Netanyahu called Hezbollah’s tunnels an “act of war,” significantly escalating Israel’s rhetoric.
Although the Lebanese army is distinct from Hezbollah’s militia fighters, Israel has made it clear that it would not differentiate between them in a future war, claiming that the two are inextricably linked. This stance, combined with the fact that Israeli, Lebanese, and Hezbollah forces are all operating in close quarters along a border that has been disputed for years, makes the situation somewhat of a powder keg.
Nicholas Blanford, a Beirut-based researcher and author who has been reporting on Hezbollah for more than 20 years, told me that local residents observing Israel’s demolition efforts along the border could increase the risk of accidental escalation.
“You’ve got a lot of Lebanese civilians at the moment who are going down and watching the Israelis work,” he said. “If one of them decides to take a pot shot at an Israeli soldier, or even just [throw] stones, if the Israelis shoot back, kill two, three people, then the pressure is on Hezbollah to maintain their deterrence posture by doing something about that.”
There’s real reason to worry if fighting does begin. Recent estimates show that Hezbollah has around 130,000 missiles in its possession. Over the past year, Iran moved its weapons production facilities from Syria to Lebanon and is reportedly helping the militant group create precision-guided missiles as well.
Israel, for its part, has one of the most technologically advanced armies in the world.
While bombing Iranian targets in the free-for-all Syrian war has had few consequences, military action in Lebanon would be much more complicated — and more deadly. If such a conflict did break out, Blanford said, it would “make the 2006 war look like a walk in the park.”
A conflict is certainly not off the table. This past month, Netanyahu threatened to carry out strikes against Lebanon if Hezbollah does not stop building precision-guided missiles. And Hanin Ghaddar, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me Iran has become more confident in confronting Israel because the withdrawal of the Americans will allow it to become entrenched throughout Syria — and secure a coveted corridor between Iraq and Lebanon. “It definitely makes the chances for an escalation higher,” she said.
She added that the cost of a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon means that both sides remain wary of jumping headfirst into a new conflict. But as Hezbollah’s capabilities grow stronger, Israeli leaders may find themselves forced to respond.
In light of the rising stakes for both Lebanon and Israel, a senior Lebanese official condemned Iran’s role in strengthening Hezbollah in recent years, and called on the international community to step in before it’s too late. “I think the major powers should get in this crisis before it starts a war,” the official told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “It’s something that can be avoided if the international community would really try to solve it.”
Trump’s withdrawal from Syria puts Israel at a disadvantage
Yet in spite of Netanyahu’s fiery language, Ghaddar told me, recently Israel has been pursuing a more diplomatic approach behind the scenes to deal with Hezbollah. One way Israel has done this is by trying to mobilize support from the UN, the US, and the rest of the international community for its anti-tunnel operation.
But despite some limited successes, this outreach has mostly failed. The United Nations Security Council rejected Israeli proposals to explicitly condemn Hezbollah for border violations, and the US refused an Israeli request to sanction the Lebanese state for its inaction on the tunnels.
And now, with his decision to pull US troops out of Syria, Trump has dealt Israel another blow. It seems clear to many that Trump’s America First policy, in which American allies must fight their own battles, has come home to roost in Israel. “This is a big deal,” Ghaddar said. “Whatever Israel finds itself in confrontation with, whether it’s Hezbollah in Lebanon or Iran in the region, no military support is going to happen from the US.”
However, Heras, the fellow with the Center for a New American Security, said that protecting Israel is still high up on Trump’s overseas agenda, which for months has been defined by its “maximum pressure” policy against Iran.
And an official at the State Department, whose leadership was reportedly opposed to the Syria withdrawal, confirmed that the pressure campaign against Iran was still on. “We will continue to use other tools of national power, particularly economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure, as leverage to press for the withdrawal of Iranian-backed forces in Syria,” the official told me.
The Trump administration has already been pursuing sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah as a policy, and more are likely on the way. But Iran has endured American sanctions for decades, and their efficacy in reducing its regional aggression is definitely not certain. Heras claims this makes Iran’s network more resilient and more dangerous than Israel often realizes.
“At the end of the day, Iran through its Hezbollah network and its infrastructure of missiles has Israel over a barrel, because Iran is used to dealing in times of austerity,” he said. “The Israelis have forgotten that.”
In addition to sanctions, Ghaddar and Heras both said that American covert actions against Iran are also likely, and that Israel will continue to challenge Iran and Hezbollah through diplomatic channels for now.
Heras also speculated that in order to make the troop withdrawal more appealing, Trump may have given Israel the go-ahead to conduct unlimited strikes on western Syria, the part of the country where Iran and Hezbollah are most entrenched.
But regardless of whether this is the case, with adversaries present on two borders and no US presence in Syria, Israel is more exposed than it’s been in years. Many seem to think that a confrontation between Israel, Iran, and its proxies is not a matter of if, but when. And Trump’s decision just gave Iran an advantage.