Northern Exposure: Israel's stability in question amid Russia’s offer

Jerusalem is walking a fine line as it hopes the Syrian conflict will wind down quietly.

THE AFTERMATH OF a suicide bomb attack is seen in Sweida, Syria, this week.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE AFTERMATH OF a suicide bomb attack is seen in Sweida, Syria, this week.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Israel this week with an offer to move Iranian forces and Iranian-backed units 100 km. from the Syrian border. Jerusalem reportedly was skeptical of deal, suggesting this was only a first step in removing the Iranians entirely from Syria.
Moscow is serious about considering Israel’s interests. It isn’t just giving lip-service about distances and red lines. According to reports, there were maps and discussions about specific intelligence during the meeting with Lavrov. The meeting took place as Arabic media reported Israel was looking at a list of Iranian targets in Iraq as far away as the Iraq-Iran border in order to cut off Tehran’s “road to the sea.” They also took place as the Syrian regime was claiming Israel struck sites near Aleppo and at Masyaf near Hama.
This was not the first time buffer zones have been discussed. In July 2017, there were foreign reports of discussions of a 40-60-km. zone. “That does not satisfy us even in the first phase, because they have weapons that go beyond that range,” an official told The Jerusalem Post at the time. But Jerusalem sees the Lavrov meeting as significant.
The 100-km. buffer-zone offer comes three years after Israel and Russia sought deconfliction in southern Syria amid the Russians coming to aid President Bashar Assad against the Syrian rebels. Now the war in Syria is changing dramatically. Last weekend, in a daring and unprecedented operation, Israel aided four Western countries and the UN in evacuating 422 Syrian White Helmets, medical volunteers who operated in rebel areas. This happened despite the Russian and the Syrian regime’s view that the White Helmets aid terrorists and are “criminals.” So Jerusalem is walking a tightrope. It wants the Syrian conflict to wind down quietly.
But the conflict is not winding down quietly. In the last weeks, Patriot missiles have been used to down Syrian drones, and on July 23, the David’s Sling air defense system was activated for the first time to interdict two ballistic missile threats. Then, on July 24, Israel downed a Syrian fighter with a Patriot. On Wednesday, ISIS fired BM-21 rockets into the Golan that landed in the Kinneret. The number of violations of the 1974 cease-fire line in recent weeks has almost created a new normal in the North of sirens and retaliation. After years of deconfliction and relative quiet the reality is changing.
The regime is coming back to the border. But what kind of regime? The pre-2011 regime or a much more weakened Russian- and Iranian-backed regime? The latter is more likely. That can be seen in the plethora of militia groups on which the Syrian Army relies in its battles.
MAPS OF southern Syria showing Iranian-backed units look like a pizza with all the toppings. The regime is so weak it can’t even defeat the small ISIS pocket near the Golan. Since July 18, it has been laying siege to the ISIS fighters of Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid. Last weekend I watched as Syrian artillery pounded Tel Jamou near the Golan. All day they sought to break the spirit of the ISIS defenders who were hiding, ironically, in an old Syrian Army base on the top of the tel or mountain. The Syrians couldn’t even take back their own former base, which their army obviously has schematics of. The Syrian Army is wary of casualties. Syrians don’t have much more blood to give after seven years of war, 10 million displaced people and 600,000 dead. It’s not because the ISIS fighters on the Golan are hardened fighters. They are not.
When the regime defeats ISIS and comes back to the border, questions will begin about what comes next. Russia has been focusing on helping the regime survive, but the post-2018 Syria will be about more than survival. When the regime was flailing for survival it could ignore Israel’s air strikes, of which there have been more than 100, according to the former Air Force chief Amir Eshel. The regime will want Russia to guarantee its airspace. Meanwhile, Iran will work toward its own agenda, coopting parts of Syrian society, funding militias and creating a parallel state, as it has done in Iraq, Lebanon and to a lesser extent in Yemen.
For years during the Syrian conflict and the instability throughout the region, Israel has worn the mantle of the stable country. From Morocco to Pakistan there were ungoverned spaces and non-state terrorist actors, from al-Qaeda to al-Shabaab to ISIS. But the various conflicts in the region, some of them begotten by the Arab spring in 2011, are winding down. The Saudi-led coalition is strangling the Houthis in Yemen.
Yes, the Houthis launched a missile this year against a Saudi tanker. But the reality is that they are being slowly beaten. Iraq is suffering a new round of ISIS attacks, but billions in support are flowing into Baghdad in an attempt to shore it up for stabilization after ISIS. The Syrian war is becoming one where great powers, Turkey in the North, the US in the East and Russia in the center, face off. The militias are playing second fiddle. It looks like Russia will play a key role in southern Syria now, working to patch up Jordanian-Syria relations and discussing issues of concern with Moscow’s Iranian partners and Israel.
This means that Israel’s days of being the center of stability may be eroded. How might that happen? Hamas is pushing in Gaza. The US is pushing for the “deal of the century.” Iran’s IRGC Quds Force leader Qassem Soleimani is on the march, arrogantly warning the Americans that he can confront the US. That confrontation could come in Iraq where the Shi’ite militias threaten the US, or in the Kurdish region where Iran wants to strike at Kurdish dissidents. But it might also come against Israel, which Iran views as a Western implant, a “little Satan.”
Israel doesn’t want to be a front-line state against Iran, but in southern Syria it is becoming one.