Iranian efforts keep region tense

Despite Iranian influence and pressure on Assad, current assessments in Israel are that both Hizbullah and Syria are deterred from war, each for its own reasons.

March 9, 2010 03:01
3 minute read.
Nasrallah, Assad and Ahmadinejad on Thursday

Nasrallah Assad Ahmadinejad 311. (photo credit: courtesy)

March 8 was a day of celebrations in Syria, marking the anniversary of the coup d’etat that brought the Ba’ath Party to power in 1963. President Bashar Assad received a number of congratulatory cables from Arab and Muslim leaders from across the Middle East.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the leader of Bahrain, for example, wished Assad “good health” and that the Syrian people should continue to progress under Assad’s “wise leadership.”

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The cable from Bahrain was especially interesting in light of tense ties the tiny Gulf state has with the Iranian-led axis in the region, of which Syria is a prominent member – a fact demonstrated by the recent terror summit in Damascus consisting of Assad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

Bahrain, home to the United States Navy’s 5th Fleet, is a country made up of two-thirds Shi’ites and ruled by Sunnis, and has been marked as one of the first countries that could fall with the right amount of Iranian pressure.

Israel, of course, did not send a cable to Syria on Monday, although it has been sending some clear messages to its northern neighbor in recent weeks in an effort to avoid a conflict that the defense establishment believes neither country really wants, but into which they could be lured by Iran.

While the IDF has taken action – for example, refraining from drafting reserves during a recent exercise in the North – and the political establishment has made the right remarks – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said last week that he would be willing to meet Assad “any time and any place” – the tension along the border has yet to be totally defused.

The main reason is Iranian efforts to escalate the situation among Israel, Syria and Hizbullah in an effort to thwart additional sanctions by the international community. If war were to erupt in the North, for example, a new round of sanctions would be postponed indefinitely.

For this reason, Israel carefully scrutinized every public statement made by Nasrallah, Assad and Ahmadinejad two weeks ago during their meeting in Damascus, on the sidelines of which Syria and Iran signed a number of new defense pacts.

While the agreements do not bind Syria to defend Iran if it is attacked by Israel or the United States, the continued alliance between the countries is of major concern for the Israeli defense establishment, primarily considering that at the same time that Assad sat down for dinner with Ahmadinejad, the Obama administration announced that it had decided to return its ambassador to Damascus.

This seemingly allows Assad to continue being part of the Iranian axis on the one hand, and to improve ties with the West on the other.

Despite the Iranian influence and pressure on Assad, current assessments in Israel are that both Hizbullah and Syria are deterred from war, each for its own reasons.

While Hizbullah, for example, continues to try and attack an Israeli target overseas to avenge the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh in 2008, its political responsibilities and fears of the damage that would be caused if war broke out are keeping it quiet. Syria is also not interested in conflict, preferring to continue straddling the line between Iran and joining the West.

What makes this equation more complex, though, is the continued military build-up in Lebanon and fears in Israel that Syria is planning to transfer what the IDF calls “balance-altering” weaponry to Hizbullah. According to some foreign reports, Hizbullah operatives are training in Syria on SA-8 anti-aircraft missiles.

Syria’s openness to Hizbullah began in 2000, when Assad succeeded his father, Hafez, as president. Before then, Nasrallah could wait several hours before being let into the Syrian president’s office. When Bashar Assad took over, though, the Hizbullah leader barely waited a minute. This quickly translated into Assad’s decision to supply Hizbullah with basically any advanced weaponry it asked for.

The question for Israel will be what to do if it receives information that the balance-altering weaponry is crossing into Lebanon. The options range from launching a preemptive strike, or to sit back, relax and put faith in the IAF’s electronic warfare systems that, according to foreign reports,  neutralized Syria’s air defenses during the strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007.

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