May 2000, Southern Lebanon
CBN News learned about Israel's pullout from its security zone in Lebanon early in the morning east coast time. Someone had to reach the Israeli/Lebanese border as soon as possible to cover the withdrawal. Later that day, this reporter flew to Tel Aviv, rented a car and then drove the two hours to the town of Metula that sits on the Lebanese border. By then the concussion of Israeli artillery rocked the town and shook the windows of the Arazim Hotel. The shells helped provide cover for Israeli troops retreating from the security zone. The next day, hundreds of Lebanese – many of them CBN employees – fled to the “Good Fence”, the gateway into Israel and found safe haven. For years, CBN’s Middle East Television (METV) broadcasted news, entertainment and the Gospel from the Lebanese village of Marjayoun. Now, these employees were fleeing for their lives.
Israel established the security zone in 1985 as a buffer from Hezbollah and other groups threatening Israel. While the security zone protected northern Israel, it was a messy, dangerous and deadly arrangement. Israeli soldiers died on a monthly basis from roadside bombs, ambushes and assassinations. Their ally in the security zone, the South Lebanese Army, also bore the brunt of Hezbollah terror. To stop this steady flow of blood and treasure, many Israelis demanded Israel pull out. By May of 2000 then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak unilaterally withdrew.
Eighteen years later, Israel is paying the price for that decision. While it eliminated the monthly death toll, it gave Hezbollah the oxygen to build up its forces. A recent report by JINSA concluded Hezbollah “has built up an impressive missile arsenal, with more firepower than 95% of countries in the world.” It’s estimated Hezbollah might have as many as one hundred and fifty thousand rockets. Within the past few weeks, Israel discovered at least five Hezbollah built terror tunnels into Israel designed to be used in a future conflict to infiltrate and attack northern Israel. In 2006, Israel fought the Second Lebanon War with Hezbollah, at the time the longest war in its history. Hezbollah fired nearly four thousand Hezbollah rockets into northern Israel, forcing more than a million Israelis either into bomb shelters or too seek shelter further south. Today the former “security zone” is woven with Hezbollah’s military infrastructure. In 2016, the IDF declassified intelligence that revealed hundreds of weapons warehouses, rocket launchers, infantry positions, anti-tank positions and command posts.
August 2005, The Gaza Strip
At our live satellite position, we watched Jewish families leaving the Gaza Strip. Many of them strapped their life's possessions on to the tops of their cars. To me it looked like a scene from the “Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck's novel that chronicled Americans fleeing the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. But these Israelis were being forced out by then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Known as the “Bulldozer” and one of Israel’s most famous generals, he bulldozed his way through his own political party, the Knesset and the Israeli public to implement “the disengagement” from the Gaza Strip. The idea was simple. “Disengage” entirely from the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in exchange for quiet on Israel’s southern border. For a generation, Israeli communities known as Gush Katif inside Gaza had built agricultural industries, provided employment for Palestinians and built thriving communities. But like the security zone in the north, it was also a costly endeavor. The IDF protected and patrolled these twenty-one Jewish communities from terror attacks. Some communities needed armored buses to shuttle their residents. It was too messy and costly for some Israelis. Yet the “disengagement” tore at the heart of Israeli society. It divided families who were for or against the move. At one press conference before the “disengagement”, we heard a spokesman for Gush Katif warn that these communities were the “finger in the dike” against Islamic terrorism. Thirteen years and three wars later, his warning rings true.
The “disengagement” handed Jewish land and communities over to the Palestinian Authority. But two years and a bloody coup later, Hamas drove out Fatah forces from the Palestinian Authority and took over the area. Today the Gaza Strip can accurately be called “Hamastan.” Hamas devotes itself to destroying Israel, has eliminated dissent and silenced its few remaining Christians. Since Hamas took over Gaza Israel has fought three wars in 2008-09, 2012 and 2014. Thousands of rockets have terrorized southern Israeli communities like Sderot. Hamas has dug dozens of terror tunnels into Israel, a model for their Islamist brothers Hezbollah in the north; spawned riots for months along Israel’s border and flown incendiary kites and balloons that have burned thousands of acres of Israeli crops. Thirteen years after the “disengagement” Israel suffers from the aftermath of that fateful decision.
December, 2011, Iraq
Ten days before Christmas, an American ceremony in Baghdad marked the formal end to the US mission in Iraq. The last five hundred US soldiers left three days later. The wearisome venture in Iraq begun in 2003 was over but some warned a premature withdrawal would be a disaster. In fact, more than four years earlier on July 12th, 2007, then-President George W. Bush gave a warning that seemed eerily prophetic:
“I know some in Washington would like us to start leaving Iraq now. To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready would be dangerous for Iraq, the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to Al-Qaeda. It would mean we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we’d allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.”
Years later, Bush’s warnings of “mass killings,” a “safe haven” for terrorists and an “even more dangerous” enemy came to pass. What came to pass was the rise of ISIS. This reporter covered that horrific aftermath. I saw thousands of refugees exiled to UN refugee camps in northern Iraq; sat down with a Yazidi girl sold as a sex slave by ISIS; walked solemnly past a mass grave of other Yazidis and heard the tragic stories of Christians forced to choose between following Jesus Christ, converting to Islam, fleeing for their lives or dying by the sword.
December 19, 2018, Northeast Syria
Six days before Christmas, President Trump announced ISIS has been defeated and the two thousand US troops remaining in Syria will be coming home in thirty days. No longer the “policeman of the world,” President Trump wanted to fulfill a campaign promise and let others in the region help carry the burden.
But tragically, the history of withdrawals in the region from May of 2000, August of 2005 and December of 2011 show that premature pullouts, no matter how well-intentioned, do not always lead to the intended result. Nature and the Middle East abhor vacuums. Hezbollah filled the “security zone” vacuum in Lebanon; Hamas filled the void from the “disengagement” in the Gaza Strip and ISIS filled the vacuum left by President Obama in Iraq. Already, nefarious forces in the region are ready to fill the vacuum left by US troops inside Syria. The Turks hope to vanquish their nemesis, the Kurds. Iran wants to finish its Mideast corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Syria desires to capture territory it lost during the civil war and Russia covets the oil fields in northeastern Syria.
It’s understandable that President Trump wants to bring the troops home, fulfill a campaign promise and let the others in the region do the heavy lifting. But the US presence in Syria serves as a bulwark against the actors in the region whose plans would undermine our own interests and those of our allies. The United States fills a unique role no other nation can. Seeing the American flag sends a signal that the might of the world’s superpower stands behind it. The sharks of the Middle East – Iran’s Khamenei, Russia’s Putin, Turkey’s Erdogan and Syria’s Assad – smelled blood in the water immediately upon hearing President Trump’s announcement. At extreme risk right now are the Kurds who have been the best ally of the US in the fight against ISIS, thousands of Christians in northeastern Syria who found refuge there and Israel who sees an emboldened Iran seeking to get ever closer to the Jewish State.
How President Trump navigates these perilous Mideast waters may well define his Presidency. He needs the wisdom of Solomon; he needs Godly counselors and Christians to pray for him as the Apostle Paul exhorted in First Timothy 2:1: “Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.”