Russian troops march in review before their withdrawal from Syria

Opinion: A combustible pentagon in the Middle East

  • Russia’s and Iran’s rescue of the Assad regime poses a strategic threat to Israel
  • The Israelis have set red lines on Hezbollah and Iranian deployments in Syria
  • Israeli deterrence suits President Assad and Russia, which is caught in the middle

President Donald Trump’s speech of December 6, 2017, announcing that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, added a global dimension to the already tense security relations between Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iran and Russia. To this five-sided conflict, we should add two players involved by remote control: the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

President Trump’s decision had merit, but it also carries some important risks for the Israeli-American-Saudi side. In addition to the anti-American demonstrations it quickly provoked, along with Palestinian violence against Israelis, it also provides Iran with a great propaganda tool. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, even argues that Mr. Trump’s declaration enables Israel to build the Third Temple in Jerusalem on the ruins of the al-Aqsa Mosque. He was invoking a theme first used in 1928 by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, who had great success in stirring up feeling against the Jewish population and the British mandate.

This turn of events is a serious boost to the ambitions of Iran, which though successful on the battlefields in Syria and Yemen, has long labored under a disadvantage in the political arena. Until recently, Saudi Arabia had been successful in isolating Iran on the all-Islamic stage – as the anti-Iranian resolutions of the latest Arab League meeting show. But following President’s Trump speech, Iran can renew its anti-Saudi, anti-American crusade – but this time, with more support in the Sunni street.

Israeli red lines

This is also happening at a time when tensions between Israel and Syria are rising along with the victories of Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah forces. From an Israeli point of view, the political resurrection of President Bashar al-Assad could be considered a benign outcome of the Syrian civil war. However, if this result comes at the price of a growing Iranian presence, then Syria becomes a strategic menace.

In hindsight, some analysts argue that Israel should have anticipated events and finished off Mr. Assad in 2012, when it had the chance. Now it is too late. Still, some developments Israel simply cannot allow: Iranian ground forces within 50 kilometers of the Golan Heights; Iranian air and naval bases anywhere on Syrian soil; factories producing sophisticated Iranian weapons in Syria or Lebanon; and shipments of such weapons from Iran through Syria to Lebanon. Israel recently declared that any and all of these activities would be considered red lines, and such targets have been attacked.

Israeli air strikes carry limited risks, because the new F-35 stealth fighters are reportedly being used for the job

These strikes, if by Israel, are not risk-free. The danger is not so much that the Syrian ground-to-air defenses, very likely partially manned by Russian officers, will shoot down an Israeli warplane. That risk appears to be limited because Israel has reportedly been using its new F-35 stealth fighters to do the job. This cutting-edge aircraft is less easily detected by Russian radar systems than anything else in the Middle East’s skies today. Apparently, Israel has been cleared to use its F-35s now because this is the only way the U.S. can test these aircraft in real battle conditions against an advanced military peer state.

Assad’s response

The greater danger lies in two possibilities. The first is that President Assad might lose his cool and retaliate in some way, because he will see the repeated attacks as too much of an affront to his leadership. A second danger is that a possible Israeli strike may unintentionally kill key Hezbollah, Syrian or Iranian personnel. This sort of collateral damage could also force one of these three adversaries to retaliate. So far, such casualties have been successfully avoided, but future success is not guaranteed.

From an Israeli point of view, the only targets representing an immediate threat are weapons factories and shipments of sophisticated arms to Hezbollah. The other dangers are still offstage for now, waiting in the wings. As yet there are no military positions or bases manned by Iranians or Iranian-sponsored militias near the Golan Heights. One installation recently bombarded by Israel was an empty former barracks of Syria’s First Armored Division near Damascus. The facility was targeted because it was being renovated and had nothing to do with the First Division, which melted away during the Civil War. The strike was just a shot across the bow, a precautionary measure to drive home Israeli’s warning that it will not tolerate an Iranian presence close to its border.

Mr. Assad clearly understands that he is not the one being targeted, but rather Hezbollah and Iran

From a Syrian point of view, the attacks so far have been tolerable – and not just due to Israeli deterrence. In the first place, very few if any Syrian soldiers have been hurt. Mr. Assad clearly understands that he is not the one being targeted, but rather Hezbollah and Iran. So long as he is not pushed into doing so by his own “deep state,” President Assad has no reason to go to war with Israel.

Secondly, he may even look on the attacks as helpful in a way. In October 2016, the Iranian armed forces chief of staff, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, traveled to Damascus with a demand for air and naval bases on Syrian soil. President Assad turned him down. The subsequent attacks may be useful in diminishing the Iranian appetite for a permanent military presence. In addition, Mr. Assad managed to salvage some honor by claiming that some of the Israeli missiles were shot down by super-effective Syrian air defenses. He could be confident that the Israelis would not contradict him, since they are not admitting to launching the attacks in the first place.

Israel’s new squadron of F-35 stealth fighters makes retaliatory strikes safer
The risk that Israel warplanes could be shot down by Syrian air defenses has declined after the country’s first squadron of U.S.-built F-35 stealth fighters went operational earlier this year (source: dpa)

Moscow’s interests

From the Russian standpoint, too, the Israeli field days in Syria are no cause for alarm. Moscow has no interest in having Iranian naval or air bases near its own at Tartus and Khmeimim, respectively. It is likewise unenthusiastic about permanent Iranian military installations anywhere in western or central Syria. In this respect, short of an accidental live-fire encounter between Russian and Israeli forces, Israel is serving a Russian interest.

The Kremlin also gets added value from the Israeli attacks. Since the Soviet days, Russian military personnel have been attached to Syrian air bases and ground-to-air missile batteries. This has proved a great asset for two reasons. First, these “advisors” enhanced the performance of Syria’s military and thus lent Russian weaponry greater prestige. Second, by tracking and evaluating Israeli air operations, Russia could glean firsthand knowledge about cutting-edge U.S. technology and Israeli tactics.

Feeling defensive

Where are the Saudis and the Americans in all this? Before Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s mysterious “suspended resignation” during a visit to Saudi Arabia and Mr. Trump’s Jerusalem declaration, it appeared that Washington and Riyadh had the upper hand diplomatically. Now they are playing defense.

For Saudi Arabia, Iran’s military victory in Syria and the murder of the key broker for a potential Saudi settlement in Yemen, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, were major setbacks. Mr. Hariri has been making the right noises since returning to Lebanon, but that does not change the fact that Hezbollah runs the country. The Saudis are deeply frustrated, but short of forcing Mr. Hariri to resign again or waging economic war on the country, there is little they can do.

Establishing a permanent presence in Syria is of strategic value to Iran; preventing this is equally important for Israel

The U.S. doesn’t have much maneuvering room, either. In Syria, despite Turkish protests, the Americans are working with Kurdish forces to keep ISIS down. Upon Jordan’s request, they are also keeping Iranian-backed militias away from the Jordanian border and the east-west route to Lebanon.

But with the demise of Daesh, the U.S. may soon leave the Syrian Kurds and northeast Jordan. Since the Kurds are now in control of Syria’s richest oil-producing area, they may be able to bargain with Assad for limited autonomy in the north. This will be easier than peace with Turkey. Jordan will have to rely more on Israeli cooperation.

Putin’s message

The preceding analysis suggests that none of the five sides wants a new war pitting Israel against Syria, Lebanon and Iran. An open conflict could bring great destruction while leaving the fundamental picture unchanged. Yet establishing a permanent presence in Syria is of great strategic value to Iran, while preventing this is equally important for Israel. That makes the situation extremely combustible.

The Russians are on the ground and in the middle. That makes a war just about the last thing Moscow wants. Presumably they will do their best to act like neutrons in the nucleus of an atom, stabilizing the situation rather than starting a chain reaction. But having achieved its strategic goals of propping up the Assad regime and establishing air and naval bases, the most sensible thing for Russia to do is lessen its exposure.

Hence President Putin’s announcement of a limited withdrawal on December 11. His underlying message was simple: “Mission accomplished. I now call the shots in Syria.” But does he?

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