If the Syrian regime wins the civil war and Iran ends up on the Golan, Israel could have difficulty defending itself, said a former White House official on Monday.
Michael Doran called for a US policy that seeks to facilitate cooperation between allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel to counter Iran. “Only the US can do that – pull them together.” If this does not happen, Israel could end up with Iranian forces and rockets on its border with Syria and “there is not much Israel can do about it.”
Doran, currently a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, was speaking to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on a panel moderated by Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Steve Linde.
Doran warned that the Syrian situation could “worsen quickly.”
US President Barack Obama “represents a trend in the national security elite, which sees Iran as a natural ally of the US. A very strongly held opinion, but they don’t like to advertise it because it is unpopular on the Hill,” said Doran, a former security adviser in president George W. Bush’s administration.
Asked what the next administration could do if Russia- and Iran-backed Syrian President Bashar Assad consolidates power, Doran told the Post “the US could hasten to aid its allies in the region.”
Pressed if it was risky for the US to counter Russia directly in Syria, the former administration official said that if there was a serious contest with Russia “we could impose costs.”
When in the White House and confronted with rogue regimes like Syria or Iran, there are always secret channels to hear a totally different message from what is voiced publicly, he said. “It is ‘I am your friend, I can solve your problems, why are you so close to the Jews, the Saudis, work with me. Yes we have our hard-liners like you do, but we can cut a deal.’” Many Americans always feel a deal can be made and that it is in the country’s interest to do so, said the Middle East expert, adding that presidential candidate Donald Trump is one such figure who believes in making deals.
The problem is not just with Obama, he continued, but previous presidents also tended to view the Middle East through the lens of the Cold War. This “made it easy to sort out the region into good guys and bad guys.”
“Moderate Arab” regimes were those that were allied with the US, and extremists were those aligned with the Soviets, he explained.
Turkey, Israel and Gulf states were on the American side, and others like Iraq, Syria and Iran after its 1979 Islamic Revolution sided with Russia. “It wasn’t perfect, but this was the basic mindset,” he said, emphasizing that the US role was “to elevate its own allies against others.”
In addition, the US played a mediating role with its regional allies, which did not all get along too well. On the other hand, argued Doran, Obama looks at the region and sees two different categories: “problematic friends and potential friends.” The only “absolute enemies” are those such as al-Qaida or Islamic State.
The problem with this mentality is that it has led to the opening up to Iran and “we have no force in the Arab world to push back.” Doran also criticized Trump and fellow candidate Sen. Ted Cruz for unrealistic plans to defeat Islamic State. Trump talks of a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Cruz mentions dealing with Assad and carpet bombing Islamic State, but this is “all fantasy talk.”
Doran is in Israel to attend an international conference on Wednesday and Thursday at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies on strategic challenges in the eastern Mediterranean.
Prof. Eyal Zisser, a leading expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, said the US is “clearly not a regional power anymore.”
At a time when there are Israeli voices saying we need to warm relations with Russia like Egypt and Syria have done, this is because of the notion that “Putin supports his friends.”
Also speaking at the conference, Zisser calls the tactics employed by Syria, Iran and Russia “ethnic cleansing” based on “the Chechnya model.”
Assad sees the problem not as one of opposition groups or Islamic State, said Zisser, but “with the Sunni population.”
Therefore, Syria and its allies reached the conclusion, argued Zisser, that there was a need to rid the country of Sunni civilians, something it has succeeded in doing in some areas.
The Israeli expert also noted that the Russian military intervention over the past months are on such a large scale that when you compare them to the US-led coalition attacks against Islamic State, it becomes apparent to some people “that the US administration is not serious about Islamic State.”
Many had thought that with the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Iran, Russia and Syria would decline in power, but now the opposite is happening, continued Zisser.
“It is not unlikely, that with Russian and Iranian support, the Syrian regime could be able to regain control of most of its territory,” he said.
If Assad is victorious in the civil war, said Zisser, he may conclude that power is the only thing that can guarantee his survival and mount an aggressive rebuilding of the Syrian army with Russian support.
“It will be a different Syria, Assad no longer would be the driver, but under Russian and Iranian influence.”
Asked by Linde if he sees the situation in Syria getting worse, Zisser responded, “Worse before better.”