Regardless of each player’s mutual public acrimony and threats, their strategic interests are best served by avoiding war. The question then becomes: what kind of precautionary measures should be taken by all the players involved, especially Russia in cooperation with the US, to prevent such an ominous development?
Iran’s overall strategic interest is to become the region’s hegemon, and it is determined to realize its objective by first securing a contiguous landmass from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, where Syria is a critical linchpin, and create a united front to threaten Israel. To protect its base and influence in Syria, Iran was quick to exploit the civil war by providing Assad with hundreds of millions of dollars, thousands of well-trained combatants, and military equipment to help him defeat the rebels and ISIS. Having suffered upward of 500 Iranian casualties, Iran became even more determined to reap the fruits of its efforts by pursuing the establishment of a permanent military presence in the country.
Iran’s second objective is to maintain a state of constant threat against its staunchest enemy – Israel – by seeking to establish a military presence in close proximity to the Israeli borders. Iran uses Israel as a rallying cry to attract violent extremists to support its proxy wars and further its regional agenda. Thus, by keeping up its public assault against Israel, Iran hopes to maintain animosity toward and heighten concerns over the ‘Israeli menace’ against the Muslim world.
In addition, Iran continues to beef up Hezbollah’s arsenals in Lebanon; first, because it wants to secure its foothold in Lebanon. Second, because it wants to open up three strategic fronts—in Syria, Lebanon, and potentially Gaza by way of Hamas—from which it can intimidate Israel and test its resolve, and create new controlled tensions, as it has recently done by flying a drone over Israeli skies, which was quickly shot down by Israel.
That said, notwithstanding its bravado, Tehran does not want to challenge Israel militarily, knowing that open hostilities now, and even in the foreseeable future, could provoke a massive Israeli retaliation that goes far beyond the reprisal following Iran’s incursion into Israeli air space, with the potential to inflict a humiliating defeat.
Finally, Iran wants to preserve the Iran deal and would not want to give Trump reasons to nullify it. That said, even though Trump may still withdraw from the deal, Iran wants to remain in good graces with the other five signatories to the deal to prevent the resumption of the sanctions, especially at a time when the Iranian public is restive and is demanding improved economic conditions and greater social freedoms.
To prevent any miscalculation that could lead to a catastrophic war with Israel, Iran should rather acquiesce and refrain from establishing military bases near the Israeli borders and build them farther north in Syria. In so doing, Iran would also aid in preventing any serious threat to Assad’s grip on power, on whose behest Tehran is justifying its continuing presence in the country, which, in any case, assumes top priority in its scheme of regional hegemony.
Tehran will be wise to rein in Hezbollah and prevent it from provoking Israel, since any conflagration between Israel and Hezbollah could destroy much of its infrastructure and rocket stockpile. After all, Iran is more interested in maintaining the threat against Israel from the Lebanese front, which serves its long-term strategic interest by solidifying its foot-hold in Lebanon only through maintaining a strong Hezbollah.
Hezbollah joined with the Syrian military to combat the rebels throughout the ongoing civil war. Even though much of its fighting force is battle-hardened, Hezbollah is now under increasing pressure to focus on restoring some normalcy to the larger Shiite community in Lebanon, while regrouping in the process. Hezbollah has sustained nearly 1,300 casualties, and Lebanon itself has suffered greatly from Syria’s civil war and is still paying a heavy toll in its effort to accommodate over one million Syrian refugees.
Hezbollah, with the full support of Iran, will maintain its threatening posture toward Israel by continuing its efforts to increase its stockpile of weapons, but it will not challenge Israel militarily. Hezbollah knows that Israel’s threshold for casualties is very low, and the death of 40-50 Israelis from Hezbollah’s rocket fire will provoke overwhelming retaliatory strikes that could inflict thousands of Lebanese casualties, which Hezbollah wants to prevent. In any event, Hezbollah will not initiate any hostilities against Israel without Tehran’s approval because such a move ill-serves Iran’s strategic regional ambitions.
Under any circumstances, Israel will continue to attack convoys carrying weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, and will also target any weapons manufacturing facilities on Lebanese soil. This, of course, carries certain risks of escalating hostilities. But since Hezbollah and Iran want to avoid a war, they will address such Israeli attacks in the same manner they have addressed previous ones—by saying little and doing even less. This, however, does not suggest that Israel has a free hand to do what it pleases. Israeli strikes will be measured against the backdrop of the overall environment, which is constrained by Israel’s own desire to avoid an open-ended war as long as it is not existentially threatened.
The Assad regime: Since he rose to power in 2000, Syria’s President Assad has never contemplated waging a war against Israel. Like his father, he has fully adhered to the 1974 disengagement agreement with Israel. In fact, throughout his reign, Assad has made several peace overtures toward Israel, believing that Syria’s future stability and prosperity depends on peace with Israel, or at a minimum maintaining the absence of hostilities.
Since the outbreak of the civil war, Assad made certain that Israel will not be given any reason to enter the fray. Now that he is on the verge of winning against the rebels and ISIS, with the pivotal support of Russia and Iran, he is even more determined to avoid any military confrontation with Israel, which Russia in particular also wants to avoid under any circumstances.
Assad finds himself, however, between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand he knows that his survival depends on the continuing support of Iran and Russia, and on the other he wants to keep Iran in check to avoid a war with Israel. In this regard, he sees eye-to-eye with Russia, which also wants to keep Iran at bay.
To avoid any miscalculation, which may result in a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran, Assad himself must prevail on Iran and prevent it from establishing any military installations in close proximity to the Israeli borders. Assad can make it clear that such Iranian military presence will invite Israeli attacks, which could implicate Syria and severely undermine its national security. In this regard, Assad can rely on Russia to support his position, especially because Moscow itself does not and will not allow Iran to have a free hand in Syria.
As the defeat of ISIS draws nearer and the conflict with the rebels de-escalates, Assad should insist that the Iranian militia leave the country, the majority of whom are not Iranians and whose allegiance is to their paycheck rather than to the Iranian cause.
Assad should send a clear message through the proper channels to Israel that he will not engage Israel militarily and will not be persuaded by Iran to think otherwise. In this regard, Russia will certainly lend its full support to Assad.
Finally, regardless of how indebted Assad is to Hezbollah, he is still in a position to demand that under no circumstance should Hezbollah provoke Israel from Syrian soil. Even further, if Assad wants to restore stability and begin some reconstruction, the country should be cleared from any potential agitators. That is, Assad should not allow a permanent presence of Hezbollah in Syria, which will only invite Israeli attacks should any accidental or premeditated hostilities break out between Israel and Hezbollah.
Israel views Iran as the number one enemy bent on its destruction and is determined to destroy any Iranian military bases in Syria in close proximity to its borders. Israel will also continue, as it has done in the past, to attack convoys that transport sophisticated arms from Iran to Hezbollah via Syria. Israel accuses Iran of regularly engaging in subversive activity to undermine its security and instigating the Palestinians to violently oppose the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade over Gaza. Israel believes that Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons once the sunset clauses of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal) expire, particularly the first phase, after which Iran will be allowed to gradually resume (with some restrictions) the enrichment of uranium. For this reason, Israel is making supreme efforts to convince the Trump administration, as Prime Minister Netanyahu put it, to “fix it or nix it.”
Although Israel is confident that it can win any military confrontation against its surrounding enemies, it has concluded that there will be no long-term benefit by initiating preemptive attacks on Iranian, Syrian, or Hezbollah forces. To destroy Hezbollah’s stockpile of nearly 150,000 short- and medium-range rockets, which are largely embedded within the civilian community, Israel will have to conduct, at least in part, carpet bombings which can result in the death of tens of thousands of civilians. Israel will preemptively strike, however, only if faced with an imminent threat.
Israel has no animosity against the Syrian regime as such and would rather see Assad remaining in power as long as he limits Iran’s maneuvering room and achieves a clear understanding with Iran that he will not allow Syria to become the battleground between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah.
To prevent any misunderstanding or miscalculation, Israel should make it clear that it wants to stay away from the war in Syria. That said, Israel must strongly iterate to Iran and Hezbollah via Russia that if faced with any threats, it will retaliate with massive force disproportionate to any provocation from either party.
Israel should openly define what constitutes provocative actions, which from the Israeli perspective include violation of its air space, firing rockets, or infiltration of terrorists emanating from Lebanese or Syrian territory. Israel should make it clear that any of these violations constitutes a red line that neither Iran nor any of its surrogates can commit with impunity.
Israel should further make it unequivocally clear to Tehran through Russia that it will destroy any military installations near its borders, and if Iran were to counter-attack, Israel will not hesitate, as Netanyahu recently stated, to bomb specific targets on Iranian soil. In any case, the Israeli public is attuned psychologically to the Iranian menace and expects their government to take whatever actions necessary to inflict unacceptable damage to the enemy.
Russia is the most dominant power broker in Syria, and no solution to Syria’s civil war or establishment of any new political order between the various factions can occur without Russia’s consent. Russia has had a presence in Syria dating back nearly 50 years, when Moscow established its naval base at Tartus, and has always had the ambition to fill the vacuum created by the Obama administration, which opted to largely stay out of the conflict in Syria.
The Kremlin seized the opportunity to come to the aid of the Assad regime, which was on the verge of collapse, by dispatching ground troops as well as the air force to bomb many of the rebel and ISIS targets, which has significantly turned the tide of the war in his favor. Russia now uses its dominant presence in Syria as a springboard from which it can exert greater influence throughout the Middle East, a position it has been pursuing for the past ten years.
Even Israel, who traditionally seeks a green light from the US before it undertakes any major military strikes, must now receive Russia’s consent before it attacks Iran’s and Assad’s military installations in Syria. Although Russia and Iran joined hands to defend Assad, Russia wants to limit Iran’s influence in Syria – partly because it wants to remain the main power broker in Syria, and partly because it wants to prevent any violent confrontation between Israel and Iran to avert further destabilization of Syria, which could undermine its strategic interests.
To be sure, Putin wants to secure Russia’s special position in Syria and is determined to prevent Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, and even the US from spoiling his gains and influence, and will not allow any of the antagonists to intervene without Russian cooperation.
Thus, Russia is in a unique position to prevent any miscalculations that could lead to unintended war, and to that end Putin must establish rules of engagement to which all the combatants need to adhere, unless faced with an imminent existential threat:
First, Russia must make it clear to Iran that it will not be permitted to establish any military bases near the Israeli borders.
Second, it should send a clear message to Hezbollah that it must not be tempted to provoke Israel, as in this regard, Russia cannot prevent Israel from conducting a massive retaliation which could undermine Moscow’s strategic interest.
Third, Putin must prevail on Turkey to stop its incursion into Syrian territory and disabuse Erdogan of his quest to subdue the Syrian Kurds, as this will only further aggravate and prolong the conflict in Syria. Putin is convinced that Turkey wants to maintain a permanent presence in Syria, which is a recipe for continuing violence between Turkish forces and the YPG, yet another destabilizing factor.
Fourth, Putin must now seek US involvement in the search for a permanent solution to Syria’s civil war. The US remains a dominant regional power and even though Russia is the main power broker in Syria, the US’ support remains critical if for no other reason than it has close ties with Israel, and that it might be drawn into in any future war between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah.
The US: Sadly, the Trump administration, which has largely followed Obama’s policy toward Syria, is now confronted with a new reality. The US under Trump does not seem to have a clear strategy as to how to deal with the conflict. Moreover, limiting American direct involvement in the conflict only to deter Assad from using chemical weapons against his people, as Trump has done once before, has had little impact on the course of the war and on Assad’s behavior, as long as he could count on Russian support.
The current situation in Syria is different for four reasons: 1) President Assad, who was excluded by the Obama administration from being a part of the solution, is assured of remaining president and will certainly be ‘re-elected’ once new elections are held; 2) Iran’s direct involvement in Syria’s civil war and its ambition to fully entrench itself in the country is a fact that Israel views as a threat against its security; 3) even when the civil war comes to an end, the sectarian conflict and the rivalry for power will continue to haunt the country for years, which is a recipe for destabilization that impacts the US’ regional allies; and 4) much of the country lies in ruin and would require tens of billions of dollars for reconstruction, which of necessity requires the US’ leadership role to raise the necessary funds.
To prevent miscalculation that could lead to an unintended war between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah, and perhaps the inadvertent involvement of Syria, the US must:
a) Maintain the presence of American troops and advisors that were dispatched to Syria to fight ISIS, and even further augment them to provide the US the leverage it needs to play an important role in the search for a solution, in coordination with Russia.
b) The US ought to restate its commitment to Israel’s national security. Additionally, notwithstanding the present strategic defense coordination between two countries, the Trump administration should consider issuing a statement, along the line of its commitment to NATO. The US should state that any major attack on Israel will constitute an attack on the US. This will certainly deter Iran from even contemplating any major hostilities against Israel.
c) Ideally, Trump should focus on amending the Iran deal in cooperation with the other five signatories, and do so through diplomatic channels rather than by issuing an ultimatum to withdraw from it completely by May, which will only heighten regional tensions. Knowing Trump’s disdain toward Iran and his characterization of the deal as being ‘the worst ever,’ he may still withdraw from the deal. At a minimum, however, he should not reinstate the sanctions so that the other signatories will have the opportunity to modify it through negotiations.
Otherwise, the precipitous withdraw from the deal will only unsettle the Iranians and may well prompt them to abandon it altogether, which could potentially lead to regional nuclear proliferation that the US and its allies in the area want to avoid. Moreover, at a time when the US wants to negotiate denuclearization with North Korea, it should not unilaterally revoke the Iran deal and expect the North Koreans to trust the US to live up to its commitments.
The irony is that none of the players involved directly or indirectly in the civil war in Syria want to escalate the conflict by threatening Israel, which will stop short of nothing to protect its national security, especially if the threat is deemed existential. Every party also knows that regardless of how much damage Israel may sustain in such a war, it will emerge victorious while inflicting perhaps unprecedented destruction on its enemies.
In the final analysis, any resolution to a conflict is measured by the prospective losses or gains. There is nothing here to suggest that any of the parties involved foresee a long-term strategic gain that can justify a catastrophic war. A war could erupt as a result of miscalculation, but this can be avoided. Russia in particular and the US must cooperate and lean heavily on their respective clients to prevent such a miscalculation.