Iran in Syria

Israel has proven its readiness to act in Syria over the last five years. It may need to continue doing so.

Hezbollah fighter walk near a military tank in Western Qalamoun, Syria August 23, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hezbollah fighter walk near a military tank in Western Qalamoun, Syria August 23, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin is well aware that Iran’s influence in Syria is a major concern in Jerusalem. The question is whether Putin can do anything about it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conveyed the extent of Israeli concerns to the Russian leader when he traveled to Putin’s summer holiday resort in Sochi last week. He made it clear to Putin that Israel would not tolerate the establishment of a permanent and significant Iranian presence in Syria that includes military bases and missile launcher sites.
Unfortunately, a number of factors have come together to make the extraction of Iran from Syria particularly complicated.
The nuclear agreement implemented in 2016 between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers – the US, UK, France, China and Russia, plus Germany – has made it more difficult to act against Iran. By negotiating and signing a pact with Iran the signatories were giving the Islamic Republic international legitimacy.
Too many countries have too much invested in ties with Iran to turn back the clock. Iran is abundantly aware of this and is leveraging its newfound legitimacy to maintain a strong presence in Syria as the civil war there gradually winds to an end. Russia is one of the countries that has enjoyed renewed economic ties with Iran.
Those who supported the deal and now voice concern over Iran’s presence in Syria should have known that this would happen. The deal paved the way for Iran to do what it wants. It gave it money and legitimacy and Israel is now potentially going to pay the price.
Meanwhile, the foreign policy of the US is in disarray. Besides a single missile strike launched against the Assad regime for using chemical weapons, the Trump administration seems to have no desire to get involved in Syria, let alone bring to bear the military force needed to remove the Iranians.
In theory, Russia has an interest in the removal of Iran, which it sees as a competitor. In post-civil-war Syria, Russia would like to see a diplomatic solution that allows it to remove most of its troops from the area, while maintaining its military influence from the seaport it has established in Tartus. Russia also wants a piece in the lucrative deals to be made as part of the rebuilding of Syria. Continued Iranian influence in the country complicates matters for Russia. It increases chances of conflict with Israel and could eventually lead to turf wars between Tehran and Moscow.
In contrast, Iran has a cardinal interest in maintaining a presence in Syria. Iran’s mullahs see an opportunity to expand Iranian influence in the region and take advantage of being on the winning side in the Syrian civil war. Iran paid a hefty price in lost Shi’ite lives, as well as destroyed equipment and arms, not to mention the enormous risks Tehran took in meddling in Syria’s internal affairs and fighting Sunni forces there.
Now Iran has an opportunity to establish a new center of influence, not through proxies, as is the case in Gaza, Lebanon or Yemen, but directly by having Iranian forces on the ground. From there, it could establish air force bases, deploy tanks and divisions and amplify, in an unprecedented way, the threat it already poses to the State of Israel.
Under these circumstances, Netanyahu is smartly maneuvering between Washington and Moscow. It is still not clear if he can succeed in getting a commitment, from either party, that Iran will not be allowed to stay, but there are other goals that might be attainable.
Aware that a direct conflict between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria could endanger the Assad regime, Putin might be able to distance Iran from Syria’s southern border with Israel and Jordan. There can also be a Russian-Iranian understanding limiting Iran’s deployment of missiles in Syria. The Russians can justify this by claiming to be interested in maintaining stability and preventing Iran from endangering the Assad regime by opening a front with Israel.
The problem with any deal of this kind is that the Iranians are not a party that can be trusted. They see themselves on the cusp of a historic conquest and will fight to ensure it succeeds.
In the end and like in the past, this may be a case of Israel not being able to rely on anyone but itself. Israel has proven its readiness to act in Syria over the last five years. It may need to continue doing so.