The Iran delusion

It is not only in Syria where US and Israeli views on Iran and Hezbollah diverge.

A Free Syrian army fighter pours tea in the rebel-held town of Dael, Syria. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Free Syrian army fighter pours tea in the rebel-held town of Dael, Syria.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Dr. Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Eurasia issues, recently returned from an Israeli government- funded educational trip as part of a delegation of former policy makers. Among the many issues discussed, the Israelis laid particular emphasis on their approach to Syria: relying on the United States to pressure Russia to pressure Iran about maintaining Israel’s red lines, or else Israel will enforce these red lines militarily.
This is only the latest example of a litany of publicly and privately expressed Israeli misunderstandings regarding dynamics in Syria. In April, for instance, Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz publicly pushed precisely the same approach to senior Trump administration officials and members of Congress, arguing that US could pressure Russia to remove Iranian forces in exchange for being allowed to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, or even to reduce its support of Assad entirely. The basis of this delusion seems to be the belief that, unlike president Barack Obama, President Donald Trump will push back against Iranian expansion rather than abet it.
Unfortunately, the previous administration’s policies have remained and expanded under President Trump, whose sole focus remains the ad hoc and monomaniacal campaign against Islamic State, often in de facto if not direct cooperation with Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. As recently as July, Education Minister Naftali Bennett declared that “Iran is trying to create a contiguous land corridor from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
We will not allow this to happen.”
Four months later, The US completed that land corridor by backing assaults spearheaded by Iranian loyalists on Al-Qaim in Iraq and Abu Kamal in Syria with scores of air-strikes and by ceding territory elsewhere along the border. Before this, it helped re-establish the pro-Assad coalition, including Iranian-linked forces, in Palmyra.
It is not only in Syria where US and Israeli views on Iran and Hezbollah diverge. Recently, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman referred to the Lebanese military as an “integral part” of Hezbollah, which Israel would target in the next war. Meanwhile, the US just pledged $120 million in aid and equipment to the Lebanese military, and it is not the only Western country to have done so.
It is genuinely unclear why Israel believes that the US has the capability, much less the intent, to pressure Russia in Syria or to push back Iran.
But the delusion goes much deeper than misreading the US. To be fair to Israel, it is not unique in championing the idea that Russia could be convinced to pressure Iran. This thinking manifested, disingenuously or not, throughout the Obama administration as well as in the anti- Obama Trump administration. Even now-disgraced former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, a hawk on Iran, naively went on RT in Russia to push for a US-Russian alliance against transnational terrorism, both Sunni and Shi’ite.
This idea also stemmed from nothing, and since 2015 Russia has dismissed all Israeli concerns about Iran and Hezbollah again and again. Furthermore, the full-scale Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 was planned directly with Qassem Soleimani, the infamous commander of the expeditionary wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Moscow. It was envisioned as a joint campaign by both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini, and it is ludicrous to believe Russia would, much less could, turn on Iran under current conditions.
As Maxim Suchkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, has explained, the relationship is complicated, as is the question of Russia’s leverage in Syria over its allies.
What is clear, however, is that there are only two real options: either Russia has leverage but doesn’t wish to use it, or Russia doesn’t have leverage.
Neil Hauer, an analyst focusing on Russian operations in Syria, also recently outlined the complexity involved in marrying Russia’s grandiose goals for a political settlement with its actual capability to pressure any side into adhering to it.
Even more ridiculous than the idea that Russia could or would pressure Iran is the idea that the Assad regime might apply such pressure, yet this is what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu implied in an explicit warning he sent to Assad, threatening consequences if Assad didn’t stop Iran from establishing bases in the country. Not only does Israel seemingly fail to comprehend any of the dynamics in Syria, it doesn’t even care to define precisely what its “red lines” are.
The demand that Iran leave Syria is nonsensical, as the vast majority of 100,000-plus IRGC-affiliated fighters, whether in the National Defense Forces or the Local Defense Forces, are Syrians. That Israel doesn’t realize how intertwined the IRGC and the Assad regime are is alarming. This is leaving aside the tens of thousands of Shi’ite jihadists IRGC has imported into Syria from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and of course Hezbollah itself from Lebanon.
Israel’s attitude, for all the rhetoric, toward the catastrophe that has been unfolding along its borders for the past few years has been surprisingly detached. Insofar as Israel has responded, it has been a disjointed hodgepodge of protecting Druse interests – which usually align with the regime – and ambiguously supporting a small rebel force; humanitarian operations; and sporadically bombing Hezbollah and regime positions in Syria. None of this is commensurate with the threat Israel faces.
At a time when IRGC-affiliated forces are advancing toward the Golan and repeatedly making threatening appearances in Lebanon, it is more important than ever that Israel puzzle out the relationships in Syria and the reality of the international situation.
It is currently entirely isolated on the Iranian issue, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia, a dangerous partner that has time and again displayed reckless incompetence when it comes to dealing with Iran. While the current dynamics in the region are incredibly fragile and anything could change, only a clear-eyed view of the present will allow Israel to begin formulating a realistic approach to the tremendous threat building across the borders.
The author graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a bachelor’s degree in Russian language and literature. He is currently completing his MA in government, with a focus on diplomacy and conflict studies.