Israel’s northern borders – a look toward 2020

Between Shi’ite military strength and increasing protests against Iran, what are the implications for Israel’s security?

What comes next? (photo credit: REUTERS)
What comes next?
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The reality on Israel’s northern border with Syria and Lebanon is dynamic and ever-changing. The frantic pace of newfound events is constantly challenging all subject-matter experts as an unexpected multi-factorial reality unfolds:
• The superpowers (US and Russia),
• The regional powers (Israel, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia),
• International organizations (the UN and the European Union),
• Various proxy organizations (Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias), and
• Other terrorist organizations such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Some of these players don’t play by clear and well-known laws. Their actions are based on changing interests, some of which are short-term and some long-term. These interests create a changing reality as expressed by two major recent events:
First, in northeast Syria, Iran’s Deir ez-Zor district is considered “the door” to central Syria and as a necessary and strategic part of the land corridor passing from Iran through Iraq into Syria, and from there onward to Lebanon. This land corridor is part of the Iranian effort to create a “new Middle East” that would include Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. While the civil war in Syria is almost over, recent battles are waging in the north of the country, while the Shi’ite axis has emerged the biggest winner of the war.
However, even though no one is demanding Syrian President Bashar Assad’s head, it is clear that Syria will not return to what it once was, and today the country is divided into de facto areas of influence, between Iran, Russia, Turkey and the Kurds.
That the US administration imposed sanctions on the individual components of the Shi’ite axis did not detract the latter from its motivation to take control of Syria and Iraq. Indicative of the same are the protests in Iraq, which stem from Shi’ites who oppose Iranian influence. The Iranian proxy militias simply shoot at protesters indiscriminately.
Secondly, in Lebanon, following a very difficult economic reality that has prevailed in the country for many years, we have witnessed mass protests in the past two-and-a-half months. Lebanon’s economic crisis has deepened as Syrian refugees flood the country (four-and-a-half million Lebanese have absorbed one million Syrian refugees) and the US sanctions against Hezbollah have affected Lebanon’s banking system.
The economic problem in Lebanon is a catalyst that again and again rises above the surface the rest of the country’s problems, such as its religious and sectarian problems. Lebanon is “torn” today between its traditional Western character and the Shi’ite ideological direction led by Hezbollah under its Iranian patron.
The changing reality within these countries located on Israel’s northern borders poses tough questions about the prospects of escalation in this region. On the one hand, the Shi’ite axis is gaining considerable military power, and it is unclear whether Israeli attacks against Iran’s military presence in Syria are not an attempt to “empty the sea with a spoon.”
On the other hand, there is a possibility that increasing pressure from home and from the Shi’ite populations in Lebanon and Iraq will not allow Iran to engage in planning terrorist attacks against Israel, since it will be preoccupied in internal instability.
At the same time, there is concern that if protests intensify, Iranians will choose to take action against Israel in order to divert attention from the internal arena to the external enemy.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is already blaming Israel and the United States for inflaming and funding the riots. The next few months will be crucial to the future of the region, as this is a historic opportunity for the UN and Western powers to put the pressure on Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Hezbollah – to give hope for the protesters in those countries that a change is possible.
The Alma Center will address these issues at the annual conference on January 7 in Tefen in the Western Galilee, a short distance from the Lebanese border.
The writer is the CEO and founder of Alma Research and Education Center – a nonprofit organization focused on Israel’s security challenges on the northern borders. She is a lieutenant-colonel (res.) and served for 15 years in the Israeli military specializing in intelligence. She holds an MA in Middle East Studies from Ben-Gurion University.