Former US Official Explains Tensions Over Syria

“Israel is unwilling to accept any risk whereas the U.S. is willing to accept more risk and that causes greater disagreement.”

WASHINGTON – On Monday evening, President Donald Trump addressed the nation regarding his administration’s new war plans to address the 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan. While not specifically mentioning any exact number during the speech, NPR reported that the Commander in Chief is expected to send an additional 4,000 soldiers. At the same time, given Israel’s ongoing concerns about Iranian forces near its borders, Ilan Goldenberg, who served as Chief of Staff to the State Department’s Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations during the Obama administration, encouraged the deployment of extra U.S. troops in southern Syria near the Golan Heights.

“I actually think the United States should be willing to have some forces on the ground to enforce some of these ceasefires especially in the southwest where we are worried about the Jordanian and Israeli borders,” Goldenberg, the Middle East Security Director at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), told Jewish Insider on Tuesday. However, Goldenberg outlined the constraints Washington faces in Syria. “The notion that the US will keep Iran out of large chunks of Syria that Iran is already in and where Assad holds power, I think that’s unrealistic. That ship has sailed,” he explained.

Comparing the tensions between Jerusalem and the Trump administration on Syria with the dispute over the Iranian nuclear deal, Goldenberg emphasized the current situation is hardly extraordinary. “Israel is unwilling to accept any risk whereas the U.S. is willing to accept more risk and that causes greater disagreement,” he added.

Turning to the Trump administration’s delegation to the Middle East this week led by the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Goldenberg was pessimistic about any chances for any substantial progress. Citing the “chaos” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu under investigation, he noted that the coalition government “couldn’t even move forward something as simple as Qalqiyah (expansion of housing units in Palestinian city), how are you going to get the really meaningful moves that you need from the Israelis.”  

As for the Palestinian side, Goldenberg listed the big challenges facing the administration. “You have total dysfunction as well and they are all absorbed in their own potential future succession issues and internal Hamas-Fatah competition. And the Gulf states are also at each other’s throats with this whole Saudi-Qatar mess so the chances of success with the inside-out approach appears limited,” he asserted.

The former Obama administration official referred to the repeated Palestinian criticisms of the White House’s approach to the peace process during the past month. Ramallah has “found that Trump can’t really get movement from the Israelis and the public position remains so quiet on problematic Israeli activities even while they have been so harsh publicly on the Palestinians. That is what’s causing the main frustration on the Palestinian side,” Goldenberg said.  “They (Palestinians) were willing to be patient at first, but they are not getting anything for it.”

Goldenberg took issue with the rising attacks against career civil servants who are assailed in certain right wing media publications. Pointing to his own time serving in the State Department and Pentagon, he explained, “You need the new political appointees coming in with the new administration to push new ideas and promote the president’s agenda, but then you need the career officials who have the genuine expertise and are really up to speed on the latest developments to have a balanced policy that is most effective.” Goldenberg added that the presence of career civil servants in the national security apparatus is not unique to Washington. “If anything, the US has more political appointees in the national security system than almost any other government in the world,” he concluded.

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