The national security advisers of Russia, the United States, and Israel are scheduled to meet in Jerusalem later this month for what former US ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro called a potential “game changer on pushing Iran’s military out of Syria.”
Russia has, with Iranian assistance, gained everything it set out to accomplish in Syria. It expanded its naval and air bases and elevated its international status, while diminishing and marginalizing America.
However, Russia, Israel and the United States may now share some common interest in keeping the Iranian regime from getting what it wants – a permanent presence in Syria. Moving forward, Iran may be more a headache than an asset for Russian interests. This month Russia expelled Iranian allied militia from the Russian naval base in Tartus on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.
Anyone who understands Iranian intentions and regime ideology knows Iran will not voluntarily leave Syria or Lebanon. Its desire to destroy Israel remains a foundational pillar of their version of Twelver Shi’ism, and their land bridge to the Mediterraneanaccomplishes both their hegemonic ambitions and represents a major step in their strategy to threaten Israel from the north.
What would be the price Russia will demand to rein in or oust Iran from Syria, assuming they have enough leverage with Iran to do either?
According Yediot Aharonot, the Arabic daily Asharq al-Awsat quoted “Western sources” claiming a quid pro quo is being discussed whereby the US and Israel would recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime, and the US would remove some economic sanctions on Russia – and “in return, Russia will limit Iranian activity in Syria.”
The key word is “limit.” What does “limit” mean, and how enforceable would it be? And what would Russia expect in return?
Would they demand relaxation of the sanctions applied to Russia in response to their illegal occupation of Crimea and Ukraine, or would they require becoming a full partner in any new negotiations regarding Iran’s development of nuclear weapons? If it is the latter, then you may have the makings of a deal. In any case, Iran won’t be happy and will resist, and make the usual false promises and demands.
America should not consider waiving Russian sanctions unless every Iranian proxy is permanently removed from Syria. Last year the Russians promised to move Iran and its allies 50 miles from the Israeli border, and that Iran and its proxies would not be in the Quneitra and Daraa provinces bordering the Israeli side of the Golan. But as last week’s rocket attack on the Golan proves, the Russian promise was worthless.
Since at least 2017, Iran has helped Syria ethnically cleanse the country of its Sunnis, re-populating non-indigenous Shi’ites into southern Syria, providing them with Syrian citizenship and Syrian uniforms, and making them a stealth Iranian militia that may be impossible to remove.
According to Raja Abdulrahim and Benoit Faucon writing in the Wall Street Journal, for those Sunnis remaining in Syria, Iran is using “cash, food and public services in a hearts and minds campaign to cultivate loyalty, draw military recruits and win converts to the Shi’ite Muslim sect... to cement its influence in Syria.”
Iran has invested tens of billions of dollars in Syria, and is not about to readily abandon this investment to Russian pressure. Russia and Iran are not natural allies, and can easily become estranged as Iran’s Islamic fervor could encourage Muslims in the Caucuses to make problems for Russian rule.
AMERICA AND Israel should not fall for the deceptive maneuver of Iranian Revolutionary Guards withdrawing from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq. So long as the Shi’ite militias remain under the control of Iran, Hezbollah holds sway in Lebanon and Bashir Assad remains a puppet of the Iranians, Iran will effectively be in control on Israel’s doorstep to the north, with Iran eyeing when to destabilize Jordan and the territories.
Iran is clever and knows it can con the Europeans into believing that a token Syrian withdrawal is real. The Europeans eat up this nonsense of Iranian plausible deniability, just as they say with a straight face that they believe the JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Agreement) will permanently end the Iranian nuclear program.
But is it realistic to aim to get Iran and all of its proxies completely out of Syria, short of a massive ground operation?
Should America and Israel take half a loaf and be happy if they can, with Russian help, remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guards from Syria, leaving the PMU (Popular Mobilization Units) and Hezbollah untouched?
What if the Russians could really enforce the 50-mile zone on the border, as they originally promised?
These half-measures would kick the can down the road, the easiest option for any politician and the most likely, but that would almost guarantee that Iran would never leave Syria under the current regime. That is why the ultimate answer short of a massive ground assault is regime change, preferably peaceful, by supporting the Iranian people’s inevitable next insurrection.
Israel has been mowing the grass in Syria for the last few years, targeting transfers of game-changing weaponry to Hezbollah, and more recently attacking Iranian weapons and drone factories. But just as in Gaza, it is unlikely to dislodge Iran and its proxies from the region unless one considers a massive ground operation and occupying territory for the long haul.
Israelis think of the Second Lebanon War and the divisive 18-year occupation of Lebanon and pause, just as Israelis have no desire to reoccupy Gaza again.
So what are Israel’s options?
The easiest option is to just keep hitting Iranian targets while keeping the Russians in the loop. But this falls far short of the Israeli stated goal of having no Iranian or Iranian proxy presence in Syria.
With Israel in electoral chaos, putting off any significant action unless a critical mass of missiles starts flying from Syria is what is most likely to happen. Israel with the full support of its populace and the United States will strike Iran again and again in Syria, hoping that the unprecedented trilateral meeting of the United States, Russia, and Israel can at least rein in some Iranian gains, and buy more time.
Except that time is on Iran’s side.
The writer is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political and Information Network), and is a regular contributor to ‘The Jerusalem Post’ and i24 TV. MEPIN is a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset, journalists, and organizational leaders.