Containment while safeguarding vital interests

A diplomatic blueprint vis-a-vis the escalation in Syria.

February 15, 2018 22:04
Containment while safeguarding vital interests

HEZBOLLAH MEMBERS wave Hezbollah and Lebanese flags during a 2015 rally in southern Lebanon marking the anniversary of the end of the terrorist organization’s 2006 war with Israel. . (photo credit: AZIZ TAHER/REUTERS)

Following the infiltration of the Iranian drone into Israeli airspace and Israel’s retaliation, the public discourse has focused mainly on the security aspect and the various ways to address it. However, the situation in Syria is increasingly becoming a diplomatic issue that requires action through sensitive and complex diplomatic channels vis-a-vis various players in the international community.

Although Iran’s move is considered an escalation, it should not come as a surprise. This is a step up in the exchange of messages between both sides, but we can safely assume that Israel anticipated that its actions, according to foreign and/or Syrian sources, would sooner or later provoke a counter-reaction.

Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.

After all, the Assad regime has reacted to attacks, presumably carried out by Israel, in a number of cases in the past. In this regard, Iran’s move may be seen as a Syrian-Iranian attempt to draw some redlines, indicating that the military freedom of action in Syria, long enjoyed by Israel, should not be taken for granted.

Either way, the Israeli interests remain unchanged and focus on two main levels.

The first interest relates to preventing Iran from establishing itself in Syria, or at least weakening its hold on the state, especially in the areas adjacent to the border with Israel and Jordan. Therefore, it must focus on a series of diplomatic measures:

First, Israel needs to reach an understanding with the relevant actors – Iran and the Assad regime – in Syria. The tightening of Iran’s grip on Syria is a reality that will be difficult to uproot, at least in the short- to medium-term. The goal, then, is to limit or to prevent it from establishing itself in a way that is too threatening to the border. This goal may be achieved with the intervention of international actors that enjoy open channels and a sufficient level of trust on both sides.

Under the current circumstances, the most prominent actor is Moscow. The relationship between Israel and Russia allows for a candid and deep dialogue, even if their interests are not aligned. The convergence of the Russian-Iranian interests is firm and tight and it cannot be dismantled now. But at the same time, Russia has a clear interest in preventing an undesirable escalation that will harm the strengthening of the Assad regime. Israel can leverage this in its dialogue with Moscow, while refraining from intense and unpredictable actions in return.

Although the US has positioned itself in a less influential (even largely secondary) position in Syria, it is necessary to closely coordinate the Israeli and American positions. In addition, it is important to coordinate positions with Arab countries, with which Israel has shared interests and close dialogue. Jordan fears, just like Israel, the Iranian hold on Syria. Egypt is watching Iran with concern as it is becoming a stronger regional power, and Saudi Arabia adopted a most assertive policy regarding Iran. The Israeli message should be that this regional dynamic should be curbed in a coordinated regional diplomatic effort against the Syrian-Iranian axis.

Although Europe has ceded its leading role in Syria to Russia, it is still possible to recruit prominent European players to increase pressure on Iran. Germany can be a good candidate for that, since it does have open channels to both sides, and enjoys Israel’s confidence. The focus of the Israeli message, at this stage, should be the Syrian context, rather than the nuclear issue. Moreover, diplomatic levers should be used to make it difficult for the Iranians to further establish their presence in Syria. It is essential to expose to the international community the Iranian attempts to establish military bases, in a manner that will prove to the world Iran’s destructive conduct in the region.

THE SECOND Israeli interest, which is no less important, focuses on preventing an escalation with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such a confrontation is not necessary and is not inevitable, as the deterrence that was achieved following the Second Lebanon War (2006) still stands and is manifested in the organization’s various public statements. Moreover, the organization is working to strengthen its political involvement in Lebanon and is looking forward to the elections for the Lebanese parliament. This trend could induce a more responsible conduct on its part, which could prevent a slide into violent confrontations to the detriment of Lebanon, as Israel repeatedly warns. Another round of violence will end with a renewed status quo that will probably resemble the current one.

The strengthening of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria continues apace. Currently, it is clear to all that the regime has been strengthened to such an extent that no one expects to reverse the process that was achieved thanks to the involvement of Russia and Iran (and Hezbollah). Israel must have an interest in strengthening the regime that will probably be able to deal more effectively with an excessively dominant Iranian influence. It should be emphasized again that this is a long-term process, since it is clear that Assad currently has neither the ability nor the will to challenge the tightening Iranian dominance in his country.

At the same time, it is hard to ignore the moral aspect of the Assad regime. This is a murderous regime that committed war crimes against its own people. However, as Israel did not directly intervene during the civil war in Syria, it must now consolidate its interests in the face of the emerging reality.

In conclusion, it should be remembered that Israel’s strategic balance with Syria continues to be comfortable, even after the recent escalation. Syria is still in the midst of difficult fighting between the various forces, and Assad’s takeover of the entire country is still far from being over. It should also be remembered that the relationships and interests of the Russia-Iran-Turkey triangle are in no way smooth. In any event, it is imperative to acknowledge that Israel’s freedom of military action is not unlimited in view of the emerging reality, hence the importance of the political-diplomatic effort. This is a challenge that Israel can and must meet.

The author is a policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a former ambassador. He held senior positions at the Foreign Ministry’s Policy Planning Division and Center for Policy Research.

Related Content

birthright participants during a visit to Israel
May 21, 2018
A hamsa keychain changed my life