After reported Russia deal, Israel still faces major challenges in Syria

While Iranian-backed forces will be banned from operating near the border, Tehran will still have a free hand to build-up military infrastructure outside the "buffer zone."

By CHARLES BYBELEZER/THE MEDIA LINE
June 1, 2018 10:26
4 minute read.

Syria's Assad flies to Russia for talks with Putin on military action in war-torn Syria, May 18, 2018 (Reuters)

Syria's Assad flies to Russia for talks with Putin on military action in war-torn Syria, May 18, 2018 (Reuters)

 
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After years of lobbying to restrict Iran's military build-up in Syria, Israel appears to have persuaded Russia, the major player in the arena, to abide by one of its key demands. To this end, Moscow reportedly has agreed to prevent Iranian-backed forces, including Hezbollah, from operating in close proximity to the Golan Heights border, a condition that will, apparently, apply to an anticipated offensive by Syrian troops to take back rebel-held territory in the area.

Israel's conviction to uphold through the use of force its red lines—namely, to thwart Iran's effort to entrench itself militarily in Syria and to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon—may thus be starting to pay some dividends. In particular, the Jewish state's targeting earlier this month of some fifty Iranian sites—this, in response to a barrage of incoming rockets fired by the Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force—seemingly has motivated Russia to, at the very least, hedge its bets by acting to limit the immediate, but perhaps not long-term, threat to Israel posed by Iran's military activities in Syria.

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Specifically, the creation of a "buffer zone" along the border free from Iranian-aligned forces diminishes the prospect of Tehran launching short-range missiles at Israel and deploying tens of thousands of Shiite mercenaries within striking distance of the Jewish state. Moreover, any decision by Moscow to rein in Tehran can be construed as a victory for Jerusalem, which, in turn, reinforces the legitimacy of its current policy.

According to Avi Melamed, Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs at the Washington-based Eisenhower Institute, Russia holds a very powerful "pressure card" as the dominant actor in the Syrian conflict and may therefore be able to impose its will on Tehran. "In the story of Syria, the key development was the Russian intervention [in September 2015]," he explained to The Media Line. "This flipped the entire equation on its head and was the military tool that saved Assad. That said, the balance of power in Syria is very complicated and there are some major, unbridgeable gaps between Russia and Iran. Putin wants Tehran to be strong enough to do the dirty work on the ground but not so powerful that it can dictate the course of actions in Syria.

"Putin is also looking for a political solution for Syria," Melamed elaborated, "and understands that the only possible scenario is an arrangement that recognizes the Sunni fabric of the nation. To achieve this goal, Russia will not hesitate to throw under the bus [Shiite] Iran, [which has imported vast numbers of its co-religionists into Syria in an attempt to change the demographic make-up]. The Iranians know this and presently have little maneuverability, especially considering that Washington is re-imposing sanctions."

Nevertheless, from Israel's perspective the supposed agreement is a borderline half-measure, as it does not bar Iran from planting roots elsewhere in Syria. In this respect, it is worthwhile noting that most, if not all, of Israel's previous cross-border operations targeting Iranian assets were conducted beyond the proposed no-go zone, which reports suggest will stretch a maximum of 40 kilometers deep into Syrian territory. Under the circumstances, then, Tehran is liable, for the time being, to maintain a free hand to construct facilities that produce or house arms capable of harming Israel from a distance, all the while consolidating the forces it controls that retain the ability to coordinate such attacks.

"There is no deal [with Russia] because Israel wants much more," Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs and currently a Senior Project Manager at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, stressed to The Media Line. "Israel is demanding that Iran give up its military enterprise in Syria altogether and will not be satisfied otherwise," he elaborated, while noting that the Tiyas base from which Iran on February 10 launched an unmanned aerial vehicle that penetrated Israeli air space is located some 250 kilometers from the border (equally notable is that the latest understanding with Russia reportedly allows for continued Israeli freedom of action in Syrian air space).

"This is why Israel says it cannot tolerate any Iranian forces in Syria, which is achievable," Kuperwasser contended. "It will not be easy
but the Russians today understand better than in the past that Iran's activities risk causing an escalation that endangers their interests. [For its part], the US withdrew from the nuclear deal and made clear that it expects Iran to give up its ambition to be the hegemonic power in the Middle East. The new American [diktats vis-a-vis Tehran, laid out in a speech by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,] have also caused growing internal pressure on the Iranian regime."

While the latest developments were undoubtedly well-received in Jerusalem, the status quo is likely to persist so long as the government remains committed to preventing the establishment of permanent Iranian military infrastructure anywhere in Syria. In the interim, Moscow has bought some time to explore whether any semblance of stability can be restored in Syria without first needing to totally defang Iran.

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