WHEN IT comes to Iran and Syria, Israel’s policy has three dimensions: grand strategy, strategy and tactics.
Its strategy on Iran’s nuclear program was recently expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his meeting in Washington on the eve of the Jewish New Year with US President Donald Trump and in his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York.
Netanyahu called for the nuclear deal between the great powers and Iran to be torn up or radically changed. The agreement, which was reached in July 2015 after years of tough negotiation, has six main partners: the US, the UK, Russia, China, France and Germany.
The deal is a unique achievement. In an era in which the world is sliding back into cold tension and conflict areas – especially North Korea, Syria and Ukraine – the six powers managed to reach a consensus on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Though the deal will expire after 10 years (less than eight years from now), it has held Iran back from reaching the nuclear bomb within three months to at least one year.
Seasonal reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), supported by Israel, the US and other intelligence communities, show that so far Iran is honoring its agreements.
Still, the deal is far from perfect. For example, IAEA inspectors don’t have access to military sites where, some suspect, forbidden nuclear R&D work is being conducted. Israeli intelligence agencies together with its American, British, German and other counterparts are constantly on the lookout for the slightest deviation from the deal on the part of Iran.
Since irritating then-US president Barack Obama by acting behind his back to press Congress to cancel the nuclear deal, Netanyahu has been silent on the matter. He did so because he didn’t want to risk losing the generous US annual military assistance package of $3.8 billion for 10 years. He also realized that the nuclear deal could not be canceled or amended.
But after Trump hinted that he might demand changes to the deal, Netanyahu broke his silence and jumped at the opportunity, trying to persuade him to cancel the deal during their meeting in New York.
The US president has until October 15 to decide whether to sanction the deal or challenge it. If he does challenge it, Congress can cancel the deal and impose more sanctions on Iran.
It’s hard to know what the unpredictable Trump will decide. He has already called it the “worst deal ever” and even promised “surprises.”
But it won’t be that easy to roll back the deal. In Israel, there is a growing gap between the political echelon led by Netanyahu and supported by most cabinet ministers and the security establishment. And even among the security chiefs, there is disagreement.
While Mossad chief Yossi Cohen sides with Netanyahu, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence head Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi are much more cautious. They believe alternatives to the current deal could be worse.
These differences of opinion are echoed in the US between Trump, and his secretaries of state and defense, supported by their military and intelligence chiefs.
But even if Trump has the upper hand and demands to amend the deal, the likelihood of it actually happening is slim. Even if the US pulls out from the agreement, the other five signatories will remain, as with the Global Climate Treaty. By abandoning the nuclear deal, the US would further weaken the international consensus – whatever is left of it.
The ramifications for Israel are even more dangerous. If the US and/or other parties revoke the deal, Iran may very well do the same. Indeed, there are hawkish voices in Iran calling on it to jump ship.
In such a scenario, we may well find ourselves once again in the reality of three to four years ago of war threats – with one big exception. Unlike then, this time Iran may actually rush to assemble the bomb and join the exclusive nuclear club, which consists of the five big powers, as well as Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
The Iranian temptation to do so is huge. It is envious of North Korea, which under its nuclear weapon umbrella is flashing its middle finger to the world.
If nuclear Iran forces Netanyahu to develop his strategy, its military presence in Syria will remain a strategic challenge.
The civil war in Syria is far from over. It’s already clear that Iran (together with Russia), which saved the Bashar Assad regime, is emerging as the big winner. Here, too, life isn’t going to be easy for Israel.
Israel demands that in the long run, if a diplomatic solution to return Syria to normalcy is reached, it will include the withdrawal of all foreign forces. This demand is supported by Russia and the US. However, the Syrian predicament is very complex. A long-term diplomatic deal is not on the horizon.
To accomplish the goal that all foreign forces leave Syrian soil, it needs the Turkish military to comply as well. But Turkey is reluctant to withdraw its forces as long as Syrian Kurds do not abandon their hope to have a Kurdish territorial entity along the Turkish border.
To press the Kurds to do so is not in the cards at the moment. The US and even Russia need them as “boots on the ground” to finish off ISIS. Indeed, the Kurds have proven to be the most effective force in the war. It won’t be easy to persuade them to allow their aspirations, enveloped in blood, sacrifice and heavy casualties, to evaporate into thin air.
But even if the Turks do eventually leave Syria, there is no guarantee that the Iranians will follow suit. At the moment, Iran has 3,000 military advisors in Syria; its Shi’ite “volunteers” (practically mercenaries) from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan number 9,000 and Lebanese Hezbollah another 8,000. That’s a big contingent to be reckoned with. They, too, have invested blood and sacrifice, and want to reap the dividends of war.
Iran wants a land corridor from Tehran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. It aspires to construct a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean shores, and it wants to get as close to the Israeli and Jordanian borders as possible.
The Iranian presence in Syria is a red line that Israeli leaders say they will not tolerate. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have made it clear, both publicly and in messages to Russia and the US, that they will not allow Iranian troops or their Shi’ite allies to cross a line 60 kilometers from the Israeli border.
There is no guarantee that such a demand will be achieved but it is possible. After all, with its allies and proxies in Syria (Kurds, Druze and moderate rebel groups), Israel holds at least one important key to the Syrian gates: It can raise hell and sabotage any future deal by using its military force to prolong the war. Russia knows it. Assad knows it. And even the Iranians understand it.
In the meantime, the Israeli-Syrian border has, for the most part, been quiet. The dozen or so breaches of the status quo were usually unintended fire between the Syrian army and various rebel groups that spilled over into Israeli territory. In each case, the Israeli artillery or fighter jets retaliated against Syrian army positions. On rare occasions, Syrian jets or Hezbollah drones that flew close to the border were downed by the Israel Air Force or its anti-aircraft batteries. Israeli policy was and remains to preserve its sovereignty, to maintain peace and tranquility along the border areas, and to punish any group that violates it.
Furthermore, Israel took advantage of the chaos of the Syrian war by reportedly carrying out around 100 attacks against weapons shipments from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah. In all incidents, the Syrians, Iranians and Hezbollah swallowed their pride, contained the damage and casualties and did not respond.
Last July, Russia, Jordan and the US declared a cease-fire near the triangular borders of Israel, Syria and Jordan. All groups present in the declared zone – the Syrian army and all the rebel groups as well as ISIS and al-Qaida – are respecting the cease-fire, and Russian military police are authorized to supervise it.
Though the agreement was achieved without direct Israeli participation in the talks, Israeli security officials operated behind the scenes and conveyed their needs and concerns to the various parties involved.
The arrangement, however, is fragile. Israel and Syria are emerging from the quandary with at least one common interest: to get rid of the 1,000-strong ISIS force in the triangular borders and to restore the old order.
In 1974, after the Yom Kippur War, Israel and Syria signed the Disengagement Agreement, which was sanctioned by UN Security Council resolutions. The agreement created a buffer zone inside Syria ranging from 500 meters to 100 kilometers, with military limitations on both sides.
To monitor the disengagement of forces, a special UN peace-keeping force called UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) was created.
At its peak, UNDOF was comprised of 1,500 people from dozens of nations. But during the Syrian civil war, after some UNDOF personnel were kidnapped by rebels and some killed, the size of the force was reduced, and UNDOF evacuated its positions in Syria and took shelter in the safety of Israel. Effectively, UNDOF became a force on paper.
In recent weeks, though, UNDOF has been returning. Backed by Israel and Syria, UNDOF Commander Maj.-Gen. Jai Shanker Menon recently visited Tel Aviv and met with military attachés of various Western countries, encouraging them to reinstate or send their troops back to UNDOF.
If UNDOF does manage to restore its capabilities, it can be said that even if Israel finds it strategically difficult to achieve its goals, at least tactically it will move forward.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman