- - Monday, July 30, 2018


While the Obama administration was joyous over its nuclear deal with Iran, they paid little or no attention to Iran’s efforts supporting terrorists in the Middle East and their increasingly active involvement in the Syrian civil war. Warnings from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fell on deaf ears at the Obama White House, where he was regarded as an annoyance and undertook efforts to unseat him in the Israeli elections.

With the Syrian civil war clearly winding down after seven years of horrible death and destruction, attention has now focused on the immediate issues of reconstruction and refugee displacement as well as the future status of the foreign forces that came into Syria to aid Bashar Assad in defeating ISIS and other rebel forces. Included here are the Russians, Iranian forces, as well as Hezbollah fighters also backed by Iran.

Russia poses no threat to Israel and has been actively engaged in discussions about Israeli security interests. Mr. Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met personally three times within the past six months, and presently both Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov are in Israel to ensure that Israel will not hinder Syrian operations in the southern Golan Heights and to address Israeli concerns about Iran exploiting the evolving situation in southern Syria.

The central focus of theses discussions with Russia — a key to what is going on in Syria today — is about what happens when the Assad regime finishes off the last of the rebels and what can be done to keep the Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias out of southern Syria. When Mr. Assad’s forces and the Russians finally eliminate the rebels, likely within a few weeks, there will be a new situation on the border with Israel.

Israel accepts that Mr. Assad has won and is looking to reset the situation in the Golan Heights, based on the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement that provided 40 years of stability there until the regime withdrew under pressure from the rebels four years ago. Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials have mentioned this repeatedly of late, as has Mr. Putin whose air forces are aiding the Syrian army in cleaning out remaining ISIS rebels in pockets near the frontier with Israel in the Golan Heights.

Russia is now pledging to keep the Iranians and their allies as far as 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the Israeli border, in an arc that passes to the east and north of Damascus, which is an increase from the 80 kilometers (about 49 kilometers) mentioned in previous talks. Mr. Netanyahu’s initial idea was to gain Mr. Putin’s assistance in removing the Iranians entirely from Syria, but obviously this is something Mr. Putin couldn’t deliver — even with President Trump’s support.

At a minimum, Israel is demanding the removal of long-range Iranian missiles from all of Syria, a halt to the manufacture of missiles within Syria meant for Hezbollahand a stop to arms smuggling through the border with Lebanon. This reflects Israel’s principal security concern about missile strikes at Israel outside of Syrian control and the 1974 agreement. In the future Israel will certainly continue to demand that all Iranian and Hezbollah fighters be removed from Syria, although it remains to be seen how this can be accomplished, even if Mr. Assad wanted them all to leave.

Mr. Putin and the Russians have responded positively to the Israeli concerns, although it remains to be seen what they can actually deliver, even as the “key” to the Syrian situation and there is no detail yet as to how Russia intends to enforce the new arrangement. Already there is evidence of Iranian and other Shi’ite fighters without uniforms or disguised in Syrian Army uniforms infiltrating the Syrian forces with no resolution as to whether or not they will be permitted to remain in the south.

Aside from the missiles, the problem of an Iranian presence in southern Syria is not an immediate one for Israel. The Iranian leadership will likely take some time to study the new military situation before making any new moves near the Israeli border. They will also be looking at the evolving Trump-Putin relationship following the Helsinki meeting and the extent to which the three key parties (Israel, Russia and the United States) are all on the same page with respect to limiting Iranian expansionism in the Middle East, especially in Syria.

If nothing else, the events in Syria have taught the Iranians a few key lessons. First, Israel has excellent intelligence in Syria. They know exactly where Iranian forces and equipment are located within Syria. Second, Israel will not hesitate to attack Iranian bases and personnel within Syria when their security interests are threatened, and that can do so in a manner that makes it clear to Mr. Assad and the Russians what is going on. Third, the Russians don’t care anymore if Iranian sites are hit. Both Israel and Russia have pointed to their active “deconfliction” operations to avoid any possible Russian casualties.

For now, Israel is not sliding into a war with Syria but is limiting military actions to defend its security interests while the Assad regime completes its mission. Mr. Assad’s forces are advancing with increasingly limited rebel resistance while Israel is keeping its contact with the area to a minimum and may soon end the humanitarian mission that has provided food, medicine and medical treatment to tens of thousands of Syrians from villages across the border.

At the same time, the Iranians have great patience, and, clearly, they are playing a long-term strategic game where the last word has yet to be spoken. It is also one where a united front by the United States, Israel and Russia is required to deal effectively with Iran.

• Abraham Wagner is a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism.

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