Syrian conflict gutting Iran’s deterrence strategy

Tehran and Hezbollah have been shaken by the civil war threatening Assad, leaving Israel facing a smaller, less united threat

syrian protesters 521 (photo credit: Raed-Al-Fares/Reuters)
syrian protesters 521
(photo credit: Raed-Al-Fares/Reuters)
The dismal Syrian civil war has now claimed over 60,000 lives, according to revised estimates by the United Nations, and the 22-month conflict shows little sign of abating anytime soon. Yet there is one ray of hope emerging out of the imbroglio, at least from Israel’s perspective. Both Syria and Hezbollah are now too weakened and preoccupied to join in a war against Israel, should the Jewish state launch a preemptive strike on Iran’s renegade nuclear program.
That is the assessment of a recent report compiled by the Center for Political Research, an intelligence unit within Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and delivered at the annual gathering of Israel’s ambassadors serving abroad in early January.
Iran’s panicked proxies According to an account of the diplomatic briefing in the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv, the report claimed that the fighting in Syria between loyalists to President Bashar Assad and rebel forces has decimated the ability of the Syrian army to seriously threaten Israel. The analysis maintained that Assad and his embattled troops would not spring to Iran’s aid for fear of losing their highly tenuous grip on power.
The prolonged struggle inside Syria has also shaken its ally Hezbollah, which has been cut off from its supply of weaponry from Iran via Damascus.
Hezbollah also has alienated much of the Sunni Arab world by standing with the Assad dictatorship and even sending thousands of militiamen across the border to fight against the Free Syrian Army.
In addition, Hezbollah fears that should it join a war between Israel and Iran, the IDF will be ordered to invade Lebanon to deal a severe blow to the Shi’ite terror militia.
“Our strategic position in the region has greatly improved, both in the northern region and in the South,” a senior Israeli official was quoted as saying. “Iran’s ability to harm Israel, in response to an attack from us, has diminished dramatically. The Iranian response will be far more minor than what could have been anticipated if the northern front still existed.”
What Israel had been anticipating until recently was for Hezbollah to respond to any Israel Air Force air strikes on Iran with massive barrages from its Iraniansupplied arsenal of 60,000 rockets and missiles. Syria also was expected to join the fray, based on an Iranian strategy of creating deterrence against Israeli strikes by building up its proxy threat along Israel’s northern borders.
The same deterrent effect was being put into place along Israel’s southern border through Tehran’s arming of Hamas and other terror militias in Gaza. However, the damage inflicted by Israel in the recent rocket war with Hamas and the success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system have lessened the threat on that front as well.
Losing luster Hamas itself has been trying to slowly wean itself from dependency on the Iran- Syria axis, as seen in politburo leader Khaled Mashaal’s abandonment of his Damascus headquarters soon after the civil war erupted. The severing of ties is not total, however, and Iran has other proxy militias in the region, such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Yet standing with the Syrian regime and its Iranian patrons has become increasingly unpopular in the Arab world, as the civil war has inflamed the historic Sunni-Shi’ite rift. Even PLO factions once beholden to the Assad dynasty for their very existence have decided to switch sides.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, for instance, stuck with Assad until as late as mid-December, when elements of the Free Syrian Army overran the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus. In that battle, many PFLP-GC militiamen defected to the opposition.
The spread of the fighting into the refugee camps has forced large numbers of Palestinians to flee the fighting in Syria, with most crossing into Lebanon or Jordan. But when the UN asked the Palestinian Authority to allow over 100,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing Yarmouk to enter the West Bank and Gaza, the request was turned down.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian mêlée has deepened in recent months, even while its oncepopular image on the Arab street has lost its luster. The Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Watan reported last month that Hezbollah has sent 5,000 fighters into Syria to directly support the faltering regime as it battles to retain control of Damascus. The report said Hezbollah fighters have managed to kill hundreds of rebels, but did not include estimates of Hezbollah casualties.
If true, the report would indicate that Hezbollah has committed a significant portion of its trained armed forces to the Syrian conflict, leaving scant reserves to face Israel. The report supports anecdotal reports by bloggers and other witnesses in southern Lebanon and Jordan over recent months that numerous funerals, featuring full military honors, have been held for Hezbollah “martyrs” killed in Syria, including at least one senior commander.
There were also reports in the Arab press in December that witnesses had seen Hezbollah rockets, meant to be fired into Israel, fired from within Lebanon at rebel-held positions in Syria instead.
These reports, and Hezbollah’s outspoken support for the Assad regime, have left the Shi’ite militia feeling ever more isolated. At least one Sunni Islamist group fighting in Syria has openly vowed to enter Lebanon after Assad’s defeat to “take revenge” against Hezbollah.
The Kurds of northeastern Syria are also embittered against Assad for oppressing them and against Iran for attacking fellow Kurds in northern Iraq and Iran. During the past two years of conflict the Syrian Kurds have, almost without firing a shot, managed to carve out a semi-autonomous region for themselves, free of control from Damascus. Deeply sympathetic to their kinsmen in neighboring Iraq, they are unlikely to help Iran in its efforts to reassert its influence in a post-Assad Syria.
Presidential mettle Besides losing regional support and seeing its allies weakened, Iran itself is suffering from internal divisions, tightening economic sanctions, the collapse of its currency, shrinking oil revenues and other domestic woes. Its air force and air defense systems are deemed to be no match for Israeli forces should they target Iran’s nuclear facilities, leaving Tehran with only its strategic missile arsenals with which to strike back at Israel.
Nonetheless, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told the same gathering of Israel’s foreign envoys last month that “Iran remains the No. 1 threat” to the Jewish state, and he is determined as ever to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Dispatched on a mission to Washington last month, Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told journalists in the US capital that the time had come for President Barack Obama to give Iran a “very clear ultimatum, very clear deadline combined with a very credible military threat” concerning its defiance of the international community.
Reports out of Washington have suggested that Obama may start his second term in office with a bid to open direct negotiations with Iran over its nuclear ambitions. The Washington Post responded with an editorial urging that any such diplomatic initiative should be short and to the point, since Iran is only months away from achieving “breakout capacity.”
The question of whether a second-term Obama will order American military strikes against Iran has become pivotal in Israeli calculations. Diplomat Dennis Ross, Obama’s special adviser on Iran during his first term, has said recently that he believes the president has the “stomach” to order such an operation.
In an appearance in Jerusalem in late December, Ross described 2013 as “a decisive year... one way or the other,” regarding Iran. “Once the president declared that prevention is our objective, it puts you on a certain glide path; it moves you towards the use of [military] force,” he stated.
Ross added that the administration would do everything it could diplomatically, for no other reason than to be able to say that it had exhausted all possibilities short of military force. But he expressed doubts that diplomacy would work in the end, since Iran is determined to acquire atomic arms in any case.
He noted that economic sanctions had taken such a toll on the regime that it was running out of wiggle room with its own population, and the nuclear program was nearly the only leverage it had left either domestically or internationally.
“Roughly a year from now, if the current pace of the Iranian nuclear program continues unabated, we will likely reach a point where the combination of the low enriched and medium enriched uranium that they have, and the number of centrifuges that they have, will be such that it’ll be difficult for the US to know for certain whether we could act quickly enough to prevent the Iranians from presenting a fait accompli when it comes to nuclear weapons,” Ross concluded.
Israeli President Shimon Peres also believes Obama has the nerves to strike Iran, according to an interview published in The New York Times in January.
“America knows how to throw a punch when it has to, in order to keep the world balanced. But the punches follow a set procedure,” he told Israeli reporter Ronen Bergman. “They don’t begin by shooting.
They try all the other means first – economic sanctions, political pressure, negotiations, everything possible. But in the end, if none of this works, then President Obama will use military power against Iran. I am sure of it.”
It remains unclear whether Netanyahu shares that same conviction on Obama’s intentions regarding Iran. In selecting his next secretary of defense, Obama’s choice of former senator Chuck Hagel, who advocates a soft approach on Iran, has not sent a comforting signal to Jerusalem.
Should Netanyahu have doubts, at least some members of the Israeli intelligence community have gauged that an unexpected window of opportunity has opened for Israel to take action, due to the fallout from the Syrian conflict.
Iran’s “Axis of Evil” with Syria and Hezbollah is unraveling and Tehran appears to have fewer means to retaliate than it once possessed.