The abrupt resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has left Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, confounded as it comes to grips with the even greater implications of the U.S. military withdrawal from Syria that prompted Mattis’s departure.
Combined with the departures of Chief of Staff John Kelly and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Israeli officials are scrambling to determine who is left in the White House who can convince President Donald Trump to think of Israel before taking such drastic security moves, as Mattis successfully did in the past, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
“There is no question that Israeli officials are concerned about the U.S. pulling out,” said Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration. “It was done without any meaningful consultation with them.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put up a confident front Wednesday telling local reporters that Israel was prepared to defend itself despite the United States decision.
“The American administration told me that the intention of the president is to take their troops out of Syria,” he said. “They made clear that they have other ways to make their influence felt in the area.”
But those in contact with the Israeli government say there is no doubt that Israel and Israeli troops are in greater danger without a United States presence in Syria. Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah routinely attack northern Israel from their base in southern Syria. And without the U.S. troops, Iran is expected to gain a stronger foothold in Syria, increasing the threat to Israel.
“Mattis believed that a great American influence in the Middle East served as a buffer to Iran and other hostile elements,” Michael Oren, a deputy in the prime minister’s office and former Israeli ambassador to the United States, tweeted in Hebrew. “Today as in the past, Israel will have to defend itself with its own forces to deal with the great threats in the north.”
The concern for Israel is that the departure of U.S. troops would create an opportunity for Iranian forces to bring military personnel and weapons into areas of Syria that were once occupied by the United States. U.S. officials say it also leaves the door wide open for Russia to exert its influence, giving greater power to the Syrian regime and its backers in Russia and Iran.
It was not the first time that the United States threatened to pull out of Syria.
At an Ohio rally in March, Trump announced that the United States would leave Syria “very soon.” He told national security officials to draw up plans to have U.S. troops out of the country within a week. Mattis, Kelly and then-national security adviser HR McMaster — all three retired generals — were able to persuade him otherwise. And Israel made its displeasure known.
“They definitely made it clear repeatedly that Syria is a huge national security concern for them,” said a former top National Security Council official in the Trump administration, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal meetings.
The official said Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is a big blow to Israel considering how much the United States has leaned on their intelligence capabilities to better understand the situation on the ground.
“They probably took a lot of risks with their intelligence-sharing and intelligence-gathering capabilities and operations to be responsive to us,” the official said.
In his resignation letter, Mattis appeared to criticize the president for undermining important U.S. alliances.
“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues,” Mattis wrote in the letter.
Netanyuhu has had to be careful not to criticize Trump personally. The relationship is too important and Trump’s ego is too fragile to risk any public disagreement, Shapiro said, but noted that Netanyahu raised his concerns and that they’ll need to find a way to work with the United States.
The former U.S. official said protecting allies like Israel was just one of the many things that Mattis did that has left top officials questioning whether they should remain in the administration.
“Mattis would keep us from some of the stuff that the president would be inclined to say or do and Mattis would be able to working with Kelly, working with McMaster and others would often be able to not necessarily follow through exactly or delay it.”