- - Sunday, February 18, 2018


In the second half of the 19th century, the British and Russian empires competed for domination of Central Asia in what history labels “The Great Game.” A new “great game,” with the entire Middle East at stake, is now being played out in Syria. The opponents are Russia and Iran on one side and the U.S. and Israel on the other. Both sides will try to use Arab states and Turkey as pawns.

When Russia and Iran intervened in what was a Syrian civil war they turned it into a war for the region. Russia, as the price for propping up the Assad regime, built permanent air and naval bases in Syria. Iran’s intervention was aimed to create a land bridge to its terrorist ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. Both succeeded.

Now, they are using the products of intervention to achieve their next goals. So is their junior partner, Turkey, a relative latecomer to the war.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, our foremost faux ally, wants to drive the Kurds from their territories on the Turkish border. He has ordered airstrikes against the Kurds, a strong American ally, and ordered more even closer to the U.S. forces in Syria. Intentionally or accidentally, Turkish forces may attack U.S. troops.

Having protected Syria’s Assad regime militarily and entering into a treaty with Turkey and Iran for that purpose, Russian President Vladimir Putin is orchestrating the severance of Turkey’s remaining bonds with NATO while extending Russian influence from Syria to neighboring nations.

Mr. Putin is also trying to apply his “little green men” strategy that succeeded in Crimea — Russian forces disguised as insurgents — in Syria.

Last week, two Russian “mercenaries” were among about 100 killed by a U.S. airstrike against pro-Assad forces in eastern Syria.

Since 1979, Iran’s goal has been the destruction of Israel. It has moved into Syria for that purpose and is testing Israel’s defenses, seeking its weaknesses.

For about a year, Iran has been building military bases in Syria close to Israel. Israel contends that Iran is manufacturing GPS-guided missiles at one or more of these bases which will be supplied to Hezbollah.

Since the Iranians began building those bases, the Israelis have often warned that their presence on Israel’s borders was too great a threat to be tolerated. That threat is being exacerbated by Iran’s bringing thousands of Hezbollah terrorists and Shiite militiamen into Syria to join the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops already there.

On Feb. 10 Iran tested Israeli defenses by flying a drone over the Israeli border. The Israelis shot it down and then conducted an airstrike against the Iranian base from which the drone was apparently launched.

In that airstrike, an Israeli F-16 was shot down by a Russian-built SA-5 missile. The Israelis struck again, hitting several Syrian and Iranian sites. It was the first loss of an Israeli fighter over Syria and the biggest Israeli strike into Syria since 1982.

After the second strike, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated Israel’s resolve to face the growing threat. He said, “Yesterday, we dealt severe blows to the Iranian and Syrian forces. We made it unequivocally clear to everyone that our rules of action have not changed one bit. We will continue to strike at every attempt to strike at us. That has been our policy and it will remain our policy.”

Israel has reportedly moved anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense batteries close to its border with Syria. Mr. Netanyahu and his government could hardly have said or done otherwise.

Iran doesn’t — yet — want an open war with Israel. After Israel’s big strike into Syria, Mr. Putin reportedly called Mr. Netanyahu and dissuaded him from further strikes for now. Mr. Putin likely had a similar conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Mr. Putin’s aim was not to promote peace but to prevent further damage to Iran’s and Syria’s military assets.

The buildup of Iranian forces so close to Israel raises a more likely short-term strategy for them. Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy force, attacked Israel in 2006, igniting a 33-day war that was enormously costly to both sides.

Iran may want to emulate Russia’s “little green men” strategy, but it isn’t easily applied to Israel. Israel’s borders are more secure and its military constantly alert to such infiltrations from Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Israel is prepared for any attempt to do so over its borders with Syria, which are intensely surveilled.

With that strategy almost certainly thwarted, Iran could order Hezbollah to launch hundreds of missiles at Israel to start a war much like the 2006 conflict.

Israel would strike back hard at both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iranian bases in Syria. Iran could gain much by testing Israel’s defenses, but the damage it (and the Syrians) would sustain would outweigh that gain.

The greatest restraint on Iran is President Trump’s unswerving commitment to Israeli security. But Mr. Trump’s resolve is not enough to thwart Iran’s dedication to Israel’s destruction.

The myriad threats Iran poses — terrorism, nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles and cyberwar — have to be considered both separately and together. Nevertheless, when Messrs. Trump and Netanyahu meet in Washington next month, they will have to decide at what point Iran’s threat from western Syria must be dealt with. It may already have been reached.

Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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