Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoRepublican lawmakers raise security, privacy concerns over Huawei cloud services WashPost fact-checker gives Pompeo four 'Pinocchios' for 'zombie' claim about Obama Iran deal Poll: Biden, Trump statistically tied in favorability MORE finds himself in a difficult position ahead of Friday’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE following the withdrawal of troops from northern Syria and little concrete action against Iran’s aggression in the region.
The abrupt end to an alliance with Kurdish forces in Syria has raised concerns among allies about America’s commitment to the region, specifically in the face of Iran’s regional ambitions.
“The nightmare for Israel is for Iran to be the biggest winner of the vacuum we created by withdrawing from Syria,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden meets with lawmakers amid domestic agenda panic MORE (R-S.C.) said Thursday, adding that he has spoken to Netanyahu by phone about Trump’s decision.
Netanyahu is “very concerned about not only ISIS coming back but Iran being the biggest winner of the vacuum we created,” Graham said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the recent withdrawal has raised worries beyond Israel.
“There is danger and damage to every one of our allies in the area,” he said. “There is no one in the area who is better off as a result of this invasion except for Iran and Russia and Syria.”
The administration has pushed back against the argument that Iran is now in a better strategic position.
“Nothing has changed with the president’s recent decision of withdrawing troops from Syria,” Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative for Iran, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. “Our strategy is around denying revenue [to Iran] and using diplomatic leverage in Syria to get Iranian forces out.”
Yet Trump’s sudden removal of U.S. troops have allies fearing that the president’s “gut-instinct” policy, with little appearance of long-term strategy, will soon hurt them.
“I think that everybody in the Middle East recognizes that this administration is a complete circus,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
“In terms of how Netanyahu plays this, he’s going to do exactly what the Saudis and the Emiratis and the others have done, which is to hedge their bets, not rely on assurances from the United States about anything, ensure that they have the ability to execute whatever they need to and keep it pleasant with the Trump administration. Because how else are they going to manage?”
Without a strong U.S. presence in the Middle East, Netanyahu risks losing leverage with Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinErdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system EU 'denounces' Russian malicious cyber activity aimed at member states Navalny knocks Apple, Google for removing voting app MORE.
“The Russians are only going to be more influential because of Trump's decision,” said Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel who’s now a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu “will probably be looking for a new opportunity to go up to Moscow and explain, yet again, what Israel’s needs are, and try to ensure that he still has the Russian understanding. But he’s in a weaker position to ask,” Shapiro said.
More worrying for Israelis, Shapiro said, is Trump’s apparent inaction in the face of bold Iranian aggression — such as the summer attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, the downing of a U.S. drone, and the attack on Saudi oil facilities last month — despite reports of retaliatory U.S. cyber attacks.
“If you’re Netanyahu, do you believe that Trump is — after what we’ve seen, not just in the Syria decisions but in the Gulf decisions as well — do you believe Trump is going to participate, have U.S. forces participate in any kind of confrontation with Iran? I don’t think Pompeo’s holding a strong hand if he’s trying to make that case,” Shapiro said.
While Netanyahu parades in front of the public his close friendship with Trump — his Twitter background is a cropped photo of him at the White House shaking hands with the American president — a lack of recent displays of support have onlookers speculating about tension between the two leaders.
When reporters asked Trump last month if he had spoken to the Israeli leader following a second round of indecisive elections, the president appeared to distance himself from Netanyahu by saying, “Our relationship is with Israel, we’ll see what happens.”
“Trump has largely ignored Netanyahu since he wasn’t able to form a government in May,” Shapiro said.
Pletka, of the American Enterprise Institute, said the meeting between Pompeo and Netanyahu will likely showcase the ceremony of close allies shaking hands, smiling and offering strong statements of assurance and commitment.
But, she warned, those commitments are meaningless when they are just rhetoric.
“I think that for everybody, this is the moment when they recognize — notwithstanding the president’s Twitter feed — ‘you guys don’t have our back.’”