The Syrian area of Quneitra is seen in the background as an out-of-commission Israeli tank parks on a hill, near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, in the Golan Heights..
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)
Earlier this month, the US and Russia forged a partial truce in Syria. The two countries agreed to a cease-fire in the southwestern part of the country that borders Israel and Jordan.
Though Israel was consulted during the lead-up to the agreement, the impression in Jerusalem is that not enough was done on the part of the Americans and the Russians to take into consideration Israeli interests. While the details of the deal have not been made public, Israel, Jordan and other Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia are concerned that Iran continues to pursue its goal of carving out a land route from Tehran, through Shi’ite-controlled areas in Iraq into Syria and from Syria to Lebanon. To this end, Shi’ite militias loyal to Iran and fighting alongside Syrian government forces are consolidating their control over areas in the east and the southeast, close to where Syria and Jordan border with Iraq. More specifically, Russia is facilitating this Iranian interest by striking a separate truce with the US on southwestern Syria, while at the same time allowing Iran to strengthen its hold in the east and elsewhere.
From Israel’s perspective the truce raises a number of questions: Can Russia be trusted to enforce the ceasefire when it is at the same time effectively cooperating with Iran to further their mutual interest in keeping the Assad regime in power? Why are Iran and Hezbollah not parties to the cease-fire? To what extent will the US ensure that Israeli interests are protected if America’s main concern is fighting the battle against ISIS, not actively preventing Iran’s inroads in Syria and Lebanon?
Israel can live with a Russian-backed Assad regime that remains in power. Jerusalem understands and respects Moscow’s interest in maintaining access to its naval port in Syria’s Tartus, which gives it a foothold in the Mediterranean. Jerusalem also understands and respects Moscow’s interest in taking advantage of its massive investment in propping up the Assad regime. Israel, like Russia, has an interest in the stability provided by a continuation of Bashar Assad’s rule. It is infinitely better than the alternative of allowing Syria to be carved up among groups such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam, Quwat al-Jalil and the forces of Padi Malih, not to mention more “moderate” rebel militias.
But Israel cannot tolerate a situation in which Iran and Hezbollah emerge victorious from cease-fire agreements with greater influence in Syria and Lebanon. That would be an existential threat for Israel.
As Yaakov Amidror, former head of the National Security Council, put it, “We will not let the Iranians and Hezbollah be the forces that will win the very brutal war in Syria and then move their focus onto Israel.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that he is “utterly opposed” to the cease-fire agreement. Of course the truce has a number of positive aspects. First, it is a model of successful cooperation between Russia and the US after months of tension. Forums that attempted to bring together a larger number of players and that sought to achieve more ambitious and broader goals have failed.
Second, it represents the first real chance at restoring stability to a portion of Syria. If the cease-fire holds, Syrian refugees presently residing in Jordan could be repatriated.
Third, the cease-fire might bring quiet to the Quneitra region bordering the Golan Heights and the Daraa region on Jordan’s northern border.
Russia and the US, however, must be persuaded to take concrete steps to protect Israeli and Jordanian interests along the two countries’ borders with Syria and, in Israel’s case, with Lebanon. This means curtailing the influence of Iran and Hezbollah and preventing them from realizing their military ambitions in areas that endanger cardinal Israeli and Jordanian interests.
As it has done in the past, Israel should continue to protect its redlines: no game-changing weapons transferred to Hezbollah via Syria; no Iranian and Hezbollah presence on Israel’s borders; and no permanent Iranian presence in Syria, not to mention Lebanon. Only Russia is in a position to help Israel protect these Israeli interests. And it should, for the sake of longterm stability.