Global Outlook 2017: Israel and its neighbors

Israeli tank crew observes Syrian territory from the Golan Heights
From their vantage point on the Golan Heights, members of the Israeli Defense Forces are peering into Syrian territory with a growing sense of alarm (source: dpa)

Israeli domestic politics will not change radically. There are signs of growing tensions in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling coalition over the settlements issue, but the settlers’ lobby understands that this cabinet is the best it can hope for. The chances for a new government are therefore low, unless corruption allegations against Mr. Netanyahu prompt the attorney general to open a criminal case against him. Then all bets are off.

Mr. Netanyahu will resume peace negotiations only if the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) agrees to talks without preconditions. Even if he wished to make a conciliatory move, PNA President Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) won’t be able to reciprocate without a very strong alibi. The 81-year-old leader has grown feeble along with his Fatah movement. Left to his own devices, he is more likely to keep up his diplomatic offensive against Israel.

President Donald Trump’s new administration will certainly send out feelers from Washington to check on the feasibility of resuming the peace negotiations. Some sort of dialogue may even be restored, but only if the United States – with Arab support – is ready to apply massive pressure on both sides, forcing each to make concessions to the other.

The ‘Intifada of the Knives’ will continue to smoulder


Even if talks resume and the Americans devote great energies to keeping them going, there will be no peace agreement this year. This is mainly because no settlement is possible unless the Palestinian side agrees to a bare minimum of Israeli security demands and drops its nonsensical call for the return of 1948 “refugees” and their descendants to Israel. Without such concessions, even a dovish Israeli government will not agree to leave most of the West Bank.

The embers of the “Intifada of the Knives” will continue to smoulder in 2017, even if Israel and the Arab countries do little to fan them. Here the wild card is President Trump’s campaign pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which could possibly disqualify Washington as an honest broker. However, the proposed move may be delayed, leaving time for talks. Since the proposed embassy would be sited in western Jerusalem, controlled by Israel before 1967, it would not preclude a later partition of the city. Furthermore, if the transfer were accompanied by a commensurate Israeli or U.S. gesture to the Palestinian side, and coordinated with moderate Arab governments, it might even pave the way for resumed talks.

Syrian goals

Israel’s two strategic goals in Syria will also not change in 2017. First, Hezbollah must not obtain any weapons via Syria that could threaten Israel’s present military superiority. Second, Hezbollah and its Iranian overlords are to be prevented from gaining a foothold in the Syrian Golan.

To achieve the first goal, Israel will continue air and missile attacks to interdict any weapons shipments from Syria destined for Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. In mid-January, following an Israeli attack near Damascus, Moscow indicated that it recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself in this way. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will quietly liaise with their Russian counterparts to avoid any confrontation with the latter’s air patrols and ground-to-air missile batteries. A potential Syrian response is of little concern since its forces suffer from a huge technological gap with the IDF.

The last thing Vladimir Putin wants to see is an Israeli-Syrian conflagration


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must also tread carefully with his sponsors in the Kremlin. The last thing Vladimir Putin wants to see is an Israeli-Syrian conflagration, with the Russian military caught in the middle. All this suggests that in the military sense, the Israeli-Syrian-Russian triangle is likely to remain stable in 2017, although it may have its risky moments.

Now that President Assad has taken possession of east Aleppo, his Russian bosses may get serious about a sustained cease-fire. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the minimum objectives of the Syrian expedition have been achieved. If Vladimir Putin throws his full weight behind the cease-fire, he can silence President Assad and the Iranians in a heartbeat. But will he? That question can only be answered by the Russian leader – and perhaps by President Donald Trump. Mr. Putin may decide on a middle-of-the-road approach, tolerating some forays by Mr. Assad and the Iranians, but denying them military support.

Assad’s move

If the war goes on, one logical place for the Syrian government to strike next is northeast toward al-Bab. Ejecting Daesh from this strategic road junction would clear the way for a thrust to the Euphrates. The Iranians are very interested in any move to the east that would help create a safe land corridor from Tehran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon and the Golan.

However, all indications are that the Turkish army will get to al-Bab first. Beyond al-Bab, strong Kurdish forces are entrenched on the west bank of the Euphrates near Manbij. Without Russian air support (which will not be offered), the Syrian government forces cannot take on both Turkey and the Kurds.

A more likely course is to turn west and southwest, into Idlib province. There are several reasons why this alternative is preferable for Mr. Assad. Because the opposition forces holding this area now are mostly allied with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has ties to al-Qaeda), they will get little or no support from Turkey or the West.

Funeral procession for Hezbollah fighters killed in Syria
Nabatieh, Lebanon: Hezbollah members carry pictures of fallen comrades during the funerals of three fighters killed fighting alongside Syrian government forces in Aleppo (source: dpa)

The Russian-sponsored peace talks that began in late January in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, show the two sides working at cross-purposes. The rebels want to stabilize the cease-fire and provide humanitarian aid, while Russia and Iran hope to secure their recognition of President Assad’s legitimacy.

If the talks fail and the cease-fire crumbles, Russia will probably be willing to keep providing air support for an Idlib offensive. This is a crucial force multiplier for the pro-Assad forces, which suffer from an acute manpower shortage. The Syrian army can muster only about 25,000 reliable combat troops and must rotate them between trouble spots. But when concentrated on a narrow front, as east Aleppo showed, they can win.

Taking Idlib would make President Assad the master of most of western Syria, including the entire Mediterranean coast and a wide swath of territory stretching inland to Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the south. While the campaign would be protracted, perhaps lasting until mid-2018, it would leave him strategically secure and in control of Syria’s most important population centers. Meanwhile, the Assad forces and Iran are carrying out ethnic cleansing in territories between Damascus and the Lebanese border, replacing Sunnis with Shia families, mainly from Iraq.

Golan gambit

But President Assad and the Iranians want more. Even before Idlib, a very tempting next step could to go south to Daraa province, on the Jordanian border, where the whole Syrian revolution began, or to strike southeast from Damascus into the Golan. The latter would allow them to wipe out the opposition’s control of the stretch of Syrian territory bordering the Israel-controlled Golan Heights.

This time Israel won't just be facing the Syrians; it will be eyeball-to-eyeball with Iran and Hezbollah


The first signs of this appeared in mid-January, when Mr. Assad sent a small force to warn the Golan rebels to give up their weapons and leave, or else. This area could also be a potential target for ethnic cleansing.

If Mr. Assad succeeds in retaking the territory abutting the Golan Heights, it will not be a return to the pre-2011 status quo. This time, Israel will not be facing Syrians across the border; it will be eyeball-to-eyeball with Iran and Hezbollah. No security-minded Israeli can accept this situation.

Intervention option

Hezbollah has a full-fledged army with about 45,000 members, of whom 21,000 are regulars. By comparison, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade (who are now calling themselves Islamic State), based about 25 kilometers from the Golan Heights, has between 1,000 and 6,000 fighters. No wonder that Israel can live with Islamic State (also known as Daesh) on the Golan, but not with Hezbollah.

If President Assad opts for an offensive toward the Golan, Israel’s first choice (excluding covert aid for Daesh) would be to increase its support to local Sunni villagers who are fighting against the Assad regime, even though they are affiliated with Islamist organizations. So far, this support has been limited to humanitarian supplies and medical treatment to more than 3,000 wounded.

If the local militias appear headed for defeat, Israel would have to intervene


If the local militias appear headed for defeat, Israel would have to intervene directly. In the past, it has attacked Hezbollah and Iranian personnel in the Golan, but will it risk a full-blown war? The Russians have been put on notice, but it is not clear whether they can or will restrain President Assad or provide Israel with ironclad guarantees that neither Hezbollah nor Iran will be allowed anywhere near the Golan.

Kurdish dilemma

Turkey will not allow a linkup of Kurdish territories in Syria, and especially a closing of the gap between the Afrin and Kobane “cantons.” Neither of the superpowers intends to challenge Ankara on this matter, because this would guarantee a diplomatic crisis, and both need Turkish favors. Therefore, 2017 is too early for any discussions about de jure autonomy for the Syrian Kurds.

However, both Russia and the U.S will accept the Kurds’ de facto control of large areas in northern Syria. While they will demand that the Kurdish-based Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) withdraw to the east bank of the Euphrates, both superpowers will be happy to see the SDF help liberate Raqqa, Daesh’s unofficial capital. With more U.S. military assistance on the way to the Kurdish forces (as suggested by several Trump cabinet nominees during their confirmation hearings), Raqqa could well be liberated by mid-2018.

Once this is achieved, the U.S. and Russia will compete for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s favors. To pry Turkey away from NATO, Mr. Putin would be ready to drop the Syrian Kurds like a rotten apple. Even now, the Kurdish authorities find themselves excluded from the Astana peace talks. President Trump will find it a bit more difficult – though not impossible – to do the same. First, however, Washington and Moscow may investigate whether it is possible to work out a compromise between the Turks and the Kurds.

Lebanese muddle

After a two-and-a-half-year vacancy that saw the Saudi royal house cut off financial subsidies, Lebanon once more has a president. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the country’s leading Sunni politician and leader of March 14 Alliance, accepted the candidacy of General Michel Aoun – thus acknowledging the dominance of Mr. Aoun’s paymasters, Iran and Hezbollah. What the late King Hussein of Jordan described as the Iranian ambition to create a “Shia crescent” from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean is now one step closer to realization.

Because Hezbollah do not fully trust President Aoun, a Maronite Christian, and do not trust Mr. Hariri at all, they blocked the formation of a new cabinet until they were sure it would be sufficiently pliable. This means the new Lebanese government will do nothing to interfere with Hezbollah’s assistance to the Assad regime – as has been the case since 2011, when the Syrian revolt broke out.

The secretary-general of Hezbollah has vowed to inflict Hiroshima-scale casualties in Haifa


The chances of a new sectarian war in Lebanon are low. Those Sunnis, Christians and Druze who oppose Hezbollah (and not all of them do) will not risk war, especially now that Mr. Assad, Iran and Hezbollah have gained the upper hand in western Syria. There is no desire for an ethnic partition of the country. The Lebanese have seen Syria’s tragedy and have fresh memories of their own civil war. The 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon also have no interest in rocking the boat. With Europe closing its borders, where would they go?

The best bet is for Lebanon to muddle through in 2017, much as it did last year. The difference will be that Syrian intelligence will be back with a vengeance. The one thing that could destroy this uneasy truce is the outbreak of a new war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Preparing for war

The Israel Defense Forces estimate that Hezbollah has anywhere between 120,000 to 150,000 rockets and missiles targeted at Israel. A few hundred of them are accurate and capable of carrying heavy payloads. Hezbollah has the capacity to barrage-fire more than 1,000 rockets per day, a volume that could overwhelm Israel’s state-of-the-art Iron Dome air defense system.

Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, has vowed to inflict casualties on the scale of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb by targeting ammonia storage facilities in Haifa with missile attacks in case of a major confrontation. He has also threatened that his fighters will seize Israeli border settlements. Retired IDF generals responded by warning that a full-blown war in Lebanon – extending beyond Hezbollah forces and the territory they control – would send the country back to the middle ages. Well-informed people on both sides give credence to these threats.

Nevertheless, the present assessment in Israel is that Hezbollah – having already lost 2,000 fighters killed and 6,000 wounded in Syria – will not risk war in 2017. Iran, too, prefers to keep the gigantic cache of rockets in southern Lebanon safe for a future confrontation with Israel. There may be small-scale skirmishes, but unless President Assad plans to reestablish himself and Iran on the Israeli border, the chances of Israel becoming involved in an all-out war are low. Yet the IDF is frantically preparing for it.

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