We have just finished nine days of celebrating the beautiful holy days of Sukkos, Hoshana Rabbah, Sh’mini Atzeres, and Simchas Torah. In the inspiring and joyous words of Hallel, there is one line that should serve as a warning for our time. “It is better to trust in Hashem than to trust in princes.”
We should be very grateful to President Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and the Golan Heights as part of Israel. But the events of recent days have shown that the adulation shown towards him, as if he were the Mashiach, is misplaced.
In the course of a few days, Donald Trump has managed to stab one of America’s most loyal and effective allies in the back, empowered the Iranian-backed Assad regime, breathed new life into the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization, and undermined the security of Israel. In doing so, he became the third US president in a row to unwittingly empower Iran.
A comprehensive history of events in the Middle East over the past 20 years would fill this entire newspaper, but some background information is helpful.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush proclaimed a war on terror and singled out Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as “the axis of evil.” He launched the Iraq War in order to depose Saddam Hussein, a truly evil man who was a dangerous enemy of the United States and Israel, who brutally oppressed his own people. Deposing Saddam was the easy part. We had no plan for what would happen afterwards. For his faults, Saddam Hussein was an important bulwark against Iranian expansion and kept the lid on sectarian tensions in Iraq. With Saddam removed from power, our troops found themselves caught in the crossfire of a civil war, and Iraq was effectively divided into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish zones.
In the Shiite areas, politicians and militias who were aligned with Shiite Iran became the dominant force. Muqtada al-Sadr, one of the leading Shiite religious leaders, launched an insurgency against American forces. In the Sunni areas, former supporters of Saddam Hussein aligned with jihadists to form al-Qaeda in Iraq, launching attacks against our troops and effectively taking control of much of the area.
The only group largely aligned with the United States was the Kurds, who effectively carved out their own autonomous areas with American support.
Because most of the Iraqi population is Shiite, Shiite politicians dominated the government in Baghdad. By deposing Saddam Hussein from power, President Bush effectively removed a major barrier against Iranian expansion and set the stage for an Iranian-aligned government in Baghdad.
President Bush did his best to turn the situation around. A temporary increase of 20,000 US troops, known as “the surge,” took place in 2007. In the Sunni Awakening, militia leaders who had been aligned with al-Qaeda switched sides to back the Americans. In the Shiite areas, al-Sadr ended his insurgency. What followed can hardly be called peace, but an Iraqi government, consisting of Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish representatives, backed by the US military, was able to assert control over most of the country.
When the Syrian civil war broke out, al-Qaeda in Iraq moved its operation to Syria and rebranded itself as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). President Obama’s withdrawal of the last US troops from Iraq, under the terms of an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government, and the Iraqi government’s purge of Sunni politicians, created the conditions for ISIS to return to Iraq and to drive the Iraqi Army out of most of the Sunni areas. ISIS emerged as the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization, controlling large parts of both Syria and Iraq and carrying out terrorist attacks across the globe.
Iran’s initial reaction to the Iraq War was to suspend its nuclear activities. But as the United States was bogged down in Iraq, Iran became emboldened, restarting its nuclear enrichment plant in Natanz and opening a heavy water production plant in Arak in defiance of UN sanctions. Beginning in 2008, the United States and Israel launched a covert cyber warfare attack, code named Olympic Games, which destroyed more than 1,000 Iranian nuclear centrifuges. But by 2011, Iranian nuclear production was back on track.
The Obama administration was instrumental in implementing strong UN sanctions against Iran, which brought Iran to the negotiating table. The Obama administration provided for the end of economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for Iran halting its nuclear activities for 15 years. The Obama administration sold the deal by saying that Iran would use the money from sanctions relief to better the lives of its own people, and that engagement with the West would bring about a change in Iran’s behavior. The weakness of the Iran deal was that it merely kicked the can down the road, leaving Iran with the ability to resume moving towards a nuclear weapon in 15 years. Iran used the money from sanctions relief to step up its production of missiles and to support terrorist proxy groups like Hezbollah. Israel and some of the Arab Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, alarmed by Iran’s growing power in the region, became closer, essentially forming an informal alliance.
At about the same time that the Obama administration was negotiating its nuclear deal with Iran, it was also moving against ISIS. Three forces, that basically hate each other, would all move against ISIS: the Russian- and Iranian-backed regime of Bashar el-Assad, the Iraqi government, and the United States. With the American people tired of wars in the Middle East, the Obama administration turned to our most loyal and reliable allies in Iraq and Syria – the Kurds. With the backing of American air power, intelligence, and training, the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) became our foot soldiers in the fight against ISIS. The YPG is anathema to Turkey because of its supposed affiliation with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which is considered a terrorist group by both the United States and Turkey. The YPG expanded to include other Arab militias that are opposed to both the Assad government and ISIS, and was rebranded as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
When the Trump administration took office, it reversed the Obama administration’s policy on Iran while continuing the policy in the fight against ISIS.
Looking to strengthen the informal alliance between Israel and the Gulf states to contain Iran, President Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal. The hope was that by imposing “crippling sanctions” on Iran, we could force the Iranians to renegotiate the deal and put an end to Iran’s development and support of terrorist proxies. While the sanctions have effectively crippled the Iranian economy, their impact has been to further embolden and strengthen Iran. Iran has a strong influence on the Shiite-led government in Iraq. The Iranian-backed Assad regime has regained control of most of Syria. Hezbollah, armed with thousands of advanced Iranian missiles that are capable of overwhelming Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and striking targets throughout Israel, is the most powerful political and military force in Lebanon and is poised to strike on Israel’s northern border. In Yemen, the Iranian-backed Houthis have taken over most of the country in what is largely a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
When the Iranians shot down an American drone, President Trump ordered air strikes against Iran, which he later called off. When one of Saudi Arabia’s most important oil facilities was knocked out by Iranian missiles, there was no retaliation. The president’s failure to act in these cases is understandable. Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is no tzadik, as the murder of the Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Saudi atrocities in Yemen have proven. A war with Iran would likely make the Iraq War look like a walk through the park, and would probably lead to the launching of thousands of Hezbollah missiles towards Israel. But the US failure to act was seen by both the Saudis and Iranians as a sign of weakness. Iran is using the opportunity to seek to break the alliance between the United States, the Gulf States, and Israel. At the recent opening session of the United Nations, Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, invited Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to join a “Coalition of Hope” that would provide security for the area based on “mutual understanding and peaceful relations among them.” Such a peace would be based on an end to “foreign interference” in the area. In calling for regional cooperation, Rouhani pointedly noted that it is the Iranians, not the Americans, who are the Gulf States’ neighbors. There have been several reports in the press indicating that Saudi Arabia is seeking an accommodation with Iran.
Earlier this year, the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces took control of the last ISIS strongholds in Syria, putting an end to the ISIS caliphate. This was a great victory for the United States. With the minimal use of our own troops, we deprived the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization of its territory. While our air power, intelligence, and training were essential, it was the Kurds of the Syrian Democratic Forces who provided the foot soldiers who fought, bled, and died to put an end to the ISIS caliphate. It was the Syrian Democratic Forces, at the cost of 11,000 casualties, that transformed Northeast Syria from the home base of ISIS to the most peaceful and stable area in Syria.
Perhaps sensing American weakness, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey called President Trump to inform him that Turkish troops would be moving into Syria to displace the Syrian Democratic Forces. Exactly what transpired during the call may not be quite clear. What is clear is that President Trump’s reaction was to withdraw American forces from the area, paving the way for Turkey to rout the Syrian Democratic Forces and drive thousands of Kurds from their homes. Abandoned by their American allies, for whom they fought and died, the Syrian Democratic Front turned to the Russian- and Iranian-backed Assad regime for protection. With their Syrian Democratic Forces under assault, ISIS prisoners are escaping to rejoin the fight. As I write this column, reports are that Turkey and Russia have reached an agreement for joint control of part of Syria. This would put almost all of Syria under the control of forces that are hostile to both Israel and the United States. With Russia as the new leading power in the Middle East, Israel may be forced to turn to Vladimir Putin to ensure its security.
We do not need President Trump to proclaim Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. David HaMelech did that 3,000 years ago. We do need the United States to have Israel’s back when the chips are down. While President Trump has dispatched Secretary of State Pompeo to Israel to assure the people of Israel of America’s support, actions speak louder than words. When the chips were down, Donald Trump turned his back on the people who had our back. Under the leadership of Donald Trump, the United States cannot be relied upon to honor its commitments to our allies. The message has been heard loud and clear in Tehran, Riyadh, and throughout the Middle East: With the United States unwilling to stand by its friends, Saudi Arabia and other states in the region may well decide that Iran’s “Coalition of Hope’ is their best bet for survival. It is a coalition that you can be sure Israel will not be invited to join.
I am not predicting what will happen in the end. The situation may yet turn out well. If there is one thing we should know, it is that “many are the thoughts in the hearts of man, but it is the counsel of Hashem that endures.”
In the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel now faces “unprecedented security challenges.” Faith in Hashem comes first; but we have a responsibility to do our part by supporting candidates who support a strong American commitment to the safety and security of Israel. I am not advocating for any specific candidate at the moment. While President Trump’s recent decisions are cause for grave concern, he does have his positive points, as evidenced by his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The direction in which Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and “the Squad” are seeking to lead the Democratic Party is deeply troubling. As the 2020 election comes closer, we will need to look at the positives and negatives of all the candidates and make the best decision we can.
What I am saying for now is that it was and is wrong to build a cult of personality around Donald Trump or any other politician. It is far better to heed the words of the man who first proclaimed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel: “It is better to trust in Hashem than to trust in princes.”