The Eastern Front menace that refuses to die

The Iranian quest to turn postwar Syria into an Israeli war front provokes Russian strategy, threatens Syria’s reconstruction and brings to mind an economically bankrupt USSR’s imperial overstretch.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) meets Iran’s military chief, Gen. Mohammed Baqeri, in Damascus, on October 19 (photo credit: SANA/REUTERS)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) meets Iran’s military chief, Gen. Mohammed Baqeri, in Damascus, on October 19
(photo credit: SANA/REUTERS)
Jeremiah's warning – “From the north shall disaster break loose” – has morphed into the strategic obsession of his Israeli successors.
For ancient Jerusalem, this warning pertained to the elevated city’s only level side ‒ the northern flank from which its conquerors indeed emerged in due course. For modern Israel, what was originally “the northern threat” came to be called, in the 1980s, the Eastern Menace, an allusion to the continuum that sprawled from Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran through Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to Hafez Assad’s Syria.
That the infamous Iraqi strongman was an enemy of both his neighbors did not matter to the Israeli generals whose job it was to think of worst-case scenarios and prepare the personnel, material and contingency plans that engaging Armageddon might demand.
In the 1980s, the worst-case scenario was that an Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian coalition would overtake Jordan and then use it as a springboard for a D-Day-type invasion along the Jordan River, unleashing thousands of tanks, hundreds of warplanes and dozens of infantry divisions backed by flurries of missiles, rockets and artillery shells of three armies representing, at the time, a combined 85 million people.
Such a script became unrealistic in the 1990s because of several unrelated dramas.
The first was the Iraqi army’s decimation in the First Gulf War. The second was the UN’s trade embargo, which deprived Baghdad of the cash its military restoration demanded. Meanwhile, Syria lost its patron with the USSR’s dissolution in 1992, and even before that when Mikhail Gorbachev told Assad plainly that he lacked both the means and motivation to finance Syria’s military ambitions.
Two years later, the Eastern Front menace suffered a further setback, as Jordan, previously suspected in Israel as an Arab-Iranian invasion’s potential accomplice, made peace with the Jewish state. Then came last decade’s Second Gulf War, which resulted in Saddam’s death and the dismemberment of his political estate, all of which further diminished the likelihood of a grand attack from the east.
Finally, this decade’s civil war in Syria fully buried the Eastern Front prospect as casualties and defections shrank the Syrian army more than 50 percent, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Now, as the Syrian civil war steadily produces a victorious Bashar Assad, the Eastern Front menace seems ready to emerge from its grave.
The threat Israel is coming to face is not about Assad, nor is it about the state he has salvaged from the jaws of defeat.
The Syria that fell apart during five and a half years of civil war will not be fully reassembled. With an estimated 500,000 fatalities and more than 10 million refugees, the Sunni majority that rebelled against the Alawite minority’s hegemony is not about to return to Assad’s bosom.
Having comprised the majority of the war’s casualties and refugees, most Sunni Syrians – an estimated 60 percent of prewar Syria’s 21 million inhabitants – will hate Assad for the rest of their days.
With the regime trying to pull Shi’ite populations to Syria’s west and push east indigenous Sunnis, as previously discussed here (“Heading for Syria minor,” May 1), it is clear that Assad is both assuming and redoubling the future hostility of millions of Syrians to his rule.
Assad, for his part, will spend the upcoming years trying to somehow rebuild the country he has brought to ruin. It will be a Sisyphean struggle, considering the population’s hostility and the Syrian economy’s underdevelopment, even before the war’s devastation.
Syria’s gross domestic product shrank from $60 billion in 2010 to $15b. last year, according to the World Bank, underpinned by a 40% plunge in agricultural output, and a 93% decline in oil production. Public debt, already a yawing 30% of GDP, is now five times that ratio. Unemployment soared from 8.6% to more than 50% of the workforce.
In Aleppo, prewar Syria’s industrial center and commercial heartbeat, 70% of the buildings have been seriously damaged or leveled. The metropolis’s thriving textile industry has relocated to Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. It will not easily return.
The banking industry, besides having been small and unfree to begin with, is now also burdened by sanctions. The Syrian pound, which in 2010 traded at 47 to the US dollar, has become paper money, now trading in the black market at some 520 to the dollar, as foreign currency reserves, since 2010, have plunged from $21b. to less than $1b.
Worse, Assad’s Russian and Iranian patrons are themselves economically distressed and in no position to finance the kind of Marshall Plan his country now begs. Such a Syria is in no position to invite fresh military blows from Israel.
Indeed, the threat to Israel stems not from Assad’s victory, but from the powers behind it and the Syria they are out to shape.
Assad won his civil war the same way Generalissimo Franco won Spain’s in 1936- 1939. Franco had the German air force bombard cities like Guernica; Assad had the Russian air force pulverize cities like Aleppo. Franco unleashed fascist Italy’s infantry on his people; Assad deployed Iranian commanders alongside Hezbollah’s foot soldiers reinforced by mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It was this external involvement that tipped the scale in favor of Assad who, as late as fall 2015 when Russian warplanes first intervened in his behalf, was on the brink of defeat.
The decisive role played by foreigners in deciding the war in favor of Assad’s Alawite minority will surely leave Syrian society deeply divided and angry while Assad struggles to supply it with the jobs, housing and social services he failed to adequately deliver even before the war.
This is aside from postwar Syria’s geographic integrity, which will keep Assad busy no less than his ailing economy and fractured society.
The regime’s effort to expand its loyalist hinterland east of the predominantly Alawite Nusayriyah Mountains, which loom to the east of the Syrian coastline, will likely intensify eastern Syria’s sense of estrangement. While its inhabitants will likely remain Assad’s nominal citizens, he has effectively lost the Kurdish regions up north, which were inhabited by roughly 10 percent of prewar Syria’s population.
Though geographically disjointed and politically divided, Syria’s Kurds will not return to Assad’s bosom.
Yes, the Turkish army’s invasion of northern Syria and its current expansion in the wake of the battle on Raqqa are bad news for the Syrian Kurds whose nascent autonomy the Turks want to quell because it fears it will link up with Turkey’s own restive Kurds.
Yet, Turkey is not likely to hand the Kurdish north back to Assad. Rather, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will turn northern Syria into something between a military buffer and a political protectorate.
Assad, at the same time, will have to claim his northern lands’ restoration and fear further Turkish encroachment on his turf. That will mean stationing scarce military resources opposite the Turkish deployment.
Coupled with the daunting economic and social challenges that await him further inland, it is doubtful Assad and his regime will seek trouble with Israel if it’s up to them. The problem is that it is not.
Assad cannot resist Iran’s use of his turf to serve its own agenda even if this policy conflicts with Syria’s supreme interest of economic restoration. Israel, however, is in a position to resist Iran’s designs and may have no choice but to do so.
Driven by the Revolutionary Guards, the military organization that controls key parts of Iran’s security activity and large swaths of its economy, Iran is nurturing an overland corridor that will stretch from Tehran to the Mediterranean after crossing the Euphrates and before forking to two terminuses: Latakia in the north, Beirut in the south.
The eastern segment of this bridge has long been intact, a consequence of the US retreat from Iraq that abandoned Baghdad to the local Shi’ites. The Iranian-led effort to reshape the Syrian coast as a Shi’ite-dominated region is designed to provide this project’s opposite bridgehead.
Unlike the Persian empires that once conquered the eastern Mediterranean coastline, the current Iranian method is not to deploy large Iranian armies, but to assemble, arm, train and command a string of local militias with which Tehran will control the corridor.
This is how Israel’s intelligence community is reading the Iranian strategy, and this is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told Russian President Vladimir Putin in a series of meetings, the latest of which was held in the Black Sea resort town Sochi last August.
The Russians are attentive to the Israeli grievances, not so much out of concern for Israel’s happiness but because Iran’s naval and air bases in Syria would compete with the bases the Kremlin has built in western Syria between Tartus, just north of Lebanon, and Khmeimim, south of Turkey.
The Syrian coastline is Russia’s only outlet to so-called warm waters, every czar’s quest since Peter the Great. This is the big prize with which Putin emerged from his great Syrian gamble. His willingness to share this trophy with Iran is limited at best. This is besides the fact that Russia needs nothing from Iran, while Iran wants to replace its military’s aging hardware with Russian radars, missiles and jets.
Moreover, the Russians don’t want much change in Syria. What they cared about ‒ the restoration of their own imperial clout and prestige ‒ has been achieved: politically, with Moscow’s rescue of the Assad regime and militarily with the success of the Russian intervention.
Thus, following America’s effective retreat from this part of the Middle East, Israel sees a hostile neighbor coming under the shadows of an imperial competition that, while unsettling, also offers opportunity.
The menace to Israel resembles last century’s Eastern Front scenario in terms of its Iranian-Iraqi-Syrian configuration. In terms of its location and mechanics, however, the new menace is different.
The location would not be Israel’s eastern hip, but its northern forehead, arching from the Lebanese border’s western tip on the Mediterranean to the Syrian border’s southern corner, opposite Jordan.
The military method would not be a World War II-style conventional invasion of the sort Israel feared in the days of Hussein. Instead, the new menace is a guerrilla and terrorist machine spread along a 200-kilometer front whose western end, sprawling from the Israeli border to Beirut, is already controlled by Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.
Israel had detected this part of the Iranian design three years ago, and the result has been a decision to nip in the bud any Iranian- led military presence east of the Golan Heights.
This policy was announced both militarily and diplomatically.
Militarily, an Iranian general, Muhammad Ali Allahdadi, was killed in winter 2015 while touring the Syrian Golan, as were 11 others in his entourage including Hezbollah commander Jihad Mughniyeh, all of whom were hit by an unidentified aircraft’s missile.
Israel never admitted to having waged that attack, but it is widely attributed to the IAF because it was so clearly in Israel’s interest and relied on the sort of delicate intelligence that Israel works hard daily to collect.
Diplomatically, Israel’s intention in this regard was subsequently stated on various occasions, most notably in Netanyahu’s address to the UN General Assembly on September 19. Paraphrasing Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech in 1946, Netanyahu first charged that “from Tehran to Tartus, an Iranian curtain is descending across the Middle East” and then pledged “to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria” and from “opening new terror fronts against Israel along our northern border.”
Earlier that day, an IDF missile intercepted an Iranian-made unmanned aircraft that was dispatched from Damascus International Airport and came within inches of Israel’s airspace.
Though downed above Kuneitra, the town on the Syrian side of the central Golan not far from where the Iranian general and his entourage had been killed in 2015, this drone is believed to have strayed while on a mission related to Assad’s bouts with rebels on his side of the Golan. Even so, Israel thus sent the message that it is following every military movement in Syria, not only strategically, but also tactically, and will not hesitate to respond whenever provoked.
The tactical part of the pattern repeated itself October 16 when the IDF said it attacked a Syrian surface-to-air missile battery some 50 km east of Damascus two hours after it fired at IAF aircraft that were on a routine reconnaissance flight above Lebanon.
Then, on October 21, four rockets fired from Syria fell in the northern Golan, leading analysts to suspect that this salvo ‒ unlike others before it ‒ was not an accidental misfiring from skirmishes on the Syria side, but an intentional, Iranian-inspired attempt to provoke the IDF.
The strategic pattern of which Netanyahu spoke surfaced 12 days before he addressed the UN, when Syria said Israeli jets attacked a Syrian army base north of Hamma. Israel neither confirmed nor denied it, but, again, all assume the attack was carried out by the IAF because the targeted plant is believed to have been used for the production of guided missiles bound for Hezbollah and chemical weapons.
Behind all these Israeli attacks lurk almost 100 assaults on convoys transporting weapons to Hezbollah, according to former air force commander Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel in a recent interview with the daily newspaper Haaretz.
Since the Russian air force’s arrival in Syria in fall 2015, the IAF has been updating the Russian army about its northern activity through a military coordination framework established by Netanyahu and Putin. This cooperation is revealing in terms of the evolving postwar Syria.
On the one hand, the emergence of Russian radars covering Syria, Lebanon and much of Israel complicates the IAF’s activity. On the other hand, the Russians are not standing in Israel’s way as it acts in Lebanon and Syria. If anything, Russian- Israeli relations have never been closer, and now also include an unprecedented visit to Jerusalem this month by Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, during which Netanyahu told him “Israel will not allow Iran’s military consolidation in Syria.”
Moreover, Russia reportedly agreed to impose a buffer zone of some 20 km east of the Golan where it will not allow Iranian- backed forces. Neither side would confirm or deny these reports.
Russia, in short, is not part of the problem Israel faces and, in fact, may be part of the solution. The problem is Iran.
Where, then, is all this headed?
Iran’s Syrian policy is fraught with political tension and strategic contradictions.
Politically, the imperial design that currently guides Tehran clashes with its quest to reboot its own economy. The Iranian economy has been beset not only by this century’s US, European and UN sanctions, but also by the ayatollahs’ policies since they deposed the shah in 1979.
Ayatollah Khomeini was suspicious of the commercial elites and drove their leaders away. That is why he and his successors let the economy rely on oil and gas exports. The Islamic Republic then used its petrodollars to finance a subsidies system that cultivated the politically loyal rural masses as the regime’s social backbone at the expense of the politically unpredictable urban middle classes.
This system worked well, at least politically, until the revolution’s 35 million Iranians became 70 million last decade. The mullahs, now compelled to feed, house and employ some 79 million Iranians, must reinvent the economy by inviting multinational manufacturers, diversifying industry and de-monopolizing industries in which the Revolutionary Guards run an elaborate patronage system.
Seen through this prism, the imperial project is a liability because its budgetary costs are high and its economic benefits are low. That is what President Hassan Rouhani and his operation understand and what the Revolutionary Guards do not.
The two schools’ clash surfaced during the presidential election’s televised debate last spring when Rouhani accused the Guards of having attempted to sabotage the nuclear deal that ended the sanctions.
Just what Western-educated politicians like Rouhani, who studied at Glasgow Caledonian University, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who graduated the University of Denver, make of the Revolutionary Guards’ imperialist platform is not entirely clear.
Still, in all likelihood, Iranians like them realize that the imperial adventure’s financial costs, international implications and military challenges might prove beyond their country’s means. This is besides their intimate acquaintance with an outer world that, at the end of the day, they want Iran to join.
That cannot be said of Revolutionary Guards Commander Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, who spent all his 60 years in Iran and warned “Westernized groups” against seeking a reconciliation deal within Iranian society of the sort Rouhani believes he obtained with the West.
Addressing Revolutionary Guards’ officers in April 2016, Jafari accused Tehran’s pragmatists of “taking the road to counterrevolution” and warned that “political ideas that contradict the Islamic revolution will not last.”
The Soviet Union in its final years was torn between post-communist reformers who wanted to part with the past and communist mandarins who thought they could continue feeding an unaffordable empire that sprawled from Cuba to Vietnam and also fight an unwinnable war in Afghanistan.
In much the same way, the Islamic Republic’s reformers want social appeasement and economic change, while the hard-liners who benefit from the existing order embark on a reckless imperialist adventure whose economic, diplomatic and military costs are beyond Iran’s means.
The economic price is being quoted by the technocrats surrounding Rouhani. The diplomatic price is being stated by the Sunni Arab world for which Iran’s effective takeover of Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sana is even more anathema than it is to Israel and the US.
Israel’s thankless role in this unfolding picture is to prove to Tehran’s reformers that the war their economy cannot afford and their diplomacy cannot defend, their military cannot win.