Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

On the brink of war

With the approaching end to the Syrian civil war, Israel is impatient to strike Iran and Hizbullah in the country, a move that could lead to ominous consequences, writes Hussein Haridy


By the time this article goes to print, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have met Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, on Wednesday, 23 August. According to a statement by the office of the prime minister, the purpose of the talks, in Sochi, Russia, is to discuss regional and bilateral issues in addition to preventing any accidental confrontation between the Russian and the Israeli air forces operating in Syria’s airspace. Cooperation between Russia and Israel when it comes to the situation in Syria, as well as its future, has been extensive since Moscow decided to deploy its armed forces in Syria back in September 2015, on the side of the Syrian government. In the last 16 months, Netanyahu has visited Russia four times.

A week ago, on the other hand, a high-level Israeli delegation visited Washington and held talks with members of the National Security Council at the White House that centred on the situation in Syria, particularly the Iranian role and influence in post-conflict Syria. Israel is worried that the end of the Syrian conflict would render the Iranian presence in Syria permanent. The Israeli delegation included the head of Mossad and the chief of Israeli military intelligence. Coincidentally, or not, days before the visit some press reports accused the national security adviser General Herbert McMaster of not being openly supportive of Israel.

The common Israeli line, be it in Washington or in Sochi, is the same; namely, that Israel would go to any length to counter any permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, and will not hesitate to resort to military force to defend its security. The Israelis believe that Iran presents what they have termed — in a routine Israeli public relations ploy — an “existential threat” to Israel. Therefore, they claim they have the right to intervene in Syria, whether directly or indirectly, through the United States and Russia as intermediaries, to draw the geopolitical map in Syria and the Middle East. It is noteworthy that the Israeli talk of an immediate and credible Iranian threat to the existence of Israel helps the right-wing government of Netanyahu to nip in the bud any serious attempt to revive peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Call it stonewalling, procrastination or scuttling American efforts to bring the two sides back to the negotiating table, the end result is the same: to postpone, sine die, the two-state solution.

A week ago, the Israeli prime minister said that “Our policy is clear: we vehemently oppose the military build-up by Iran and its proxies, primarily Hizbullah, in Syria and will do whatever it takes to protect Israel’s security.”

It was not accidental that an Israeli TV channel aired, at the same time, a report claiming that satellite images showed a site near the Syrian port city of Baniyas, similar to a site in Iran, being readied to store underground missiles. A tenuous claim the sole purpose of which is to raise a certain war hysteria in the Middle East and to allow Israel to strike militarily in Syria or in Lebanon at a time of its choosing after getting the green light from both Washington and Moscow.

The Middle East appears on a war footing. Of course, the Americans will not object to Israel striking Iranian militias in Syria or attacking Hizbullah in Lebanon, but would prefer to have a say on the timing. They would prefer waiting to put in place a region-wide alliance that encompasses the moderate Arab states, on the one hand, and the United States and Israel, on the other. The same goes for the Russians as long as the Astana process is still operational. The Russian-Israeli summit at Sochi will help in determining how far the Russians will go with Israeli thinking on the future of Syria, and Syrian-Iranian relations. in the years to come, once the Syrian conflict is over, which is not far off.

The main official Israeli argument is that the trilateral accord reached among the Jordanians, the Russians and the Americans on establishing a de-escalation zone in the south-western part of Syria, the triangle of Deraa-Qunaitra-Swedaa, does not take Israeli interests into account, inasmuch as it does not keep Iranian militias and Hizbullah forces from Israeli borders. Nothing is farther from the truth. Actually, these forces are 40 kilometres from these borders.

Will the Americans and Russians reach a tacit understanding to allow Israel a free hand in Syria, for tactical purposes, specifically to contain the growing influence of Iran in regional politics? Do the two great powers have a vested interest in such an understanding? From September 2013 onwards, the major trend has been an American-Russian entente in Syria, regardless of who is in the White House, former president Barack Obama or President Donald Trump, and regardless of differences between the two on other international and regional questions, notwithstanding the accusations of Russian meddling in the American presidential elections last year, as well as serious accusations of collusion between some officials in the Trump election campaign and Russia. The two powers have been working, sometimes in coordinated efforts, and at other times in parallel, to bring the Syrian conflict to an end in order to concentrate on countering terrorism and defeating the Islamic State and all Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria and Iraq. For the time being, the two have an interest in letting Iran face the Islamic State in Syria through its militias. Once this goal is achieved, the situation could change.

Does Israel have the upper hand? From a military point of view, the answer is yes. The Israelis have attacked arms convoys within Syria destined for Hizbullah 100 times in the last five years. But from a political point of view their hands are tied, for the time being, by American and Russian strategies in Syria. This does not prevent them from beating the drums of war till the time comes for a military showdown with Iran and Hizbullah.

The question is not if it will happen, but rather when. Once this happens, neither Israel nor the United States and Russia would have any control on how such an Israeli military adventure plays out as far as the regional pattern of alliances would develop.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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