LONDON: It was only a few short months ago that much of the world’s media were speculating on the potential for confrontation between Israel and Syria, which culminated in the brief clash on 10 February, resulting in the destruction of several Syrian and Iranian air defence batteries in Syria, and also the downing of an Israeli F-16 jet.
Since then, the media have turned their attention to the potential for conflict between the two main state actors, the United States and Russia, which was heightened by the 14 April missile strike by a coalition of US, British and French forces on, supposedly, chemical-producing facilities in Syria. (It has since been rumoured that the targeted Syrian sites were decided upon, prior to the action, by American and Russian officials.)
Now, the media is at last focusing on the root of almost all that is destabilising in the Middle East, and that is the expanding role of Iran, the 21st century imperialists. Already the Iranians have expanded their influence and control from Tehran through Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and, to the south, intimidating Jordan and fighting a proxy war in Yemen where its allies, the Houthis, are fighting the Saudis for control of its capital, Sana’a.
This had all been greatly facilitated by President Obama’s decision to release around $100B to Iran in 2016 as a result of what, many believe, was motivated by his desire to conclude his nuclear deal (not a treaty or agreement) with Iran as the mainstay of what was supposed to be his legacy. Countering the criticism, Obama insisted his action would result in a moderation of Iran’s behaviour that would lead it to be re-admitted as a member of the “family of nations”. What a miscalculation. Iran has, instead, quadrupled its annual support of Hezbollah from $200 million to $800million. The regime has also given hundreds of millions of dollars annually to its proxy militias and armies in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, in addition to Hezbollah and the Hamas in Gaza.
Thus we are witnessing the pursuit of an expansionist and imperialist Iranian policy in Syria, supported by approximately 80-100,000 Revolutionary Guards, including their Hezbollah acolytes. They are constructing permanent air force bases (close to Russian forces as a deterrent), and, all the while, manoeuvring closer to Israel’s border along the Golan Heights. This is a major concern to Israel’s military planners who have declared this is their “red line”. Should this be crossed, it is almost unimaginable that Israel would not react vigorously.
Might this “red line” be tested next month (May) which is anticipated to be a highly toxic moment? In the space of just four days, four ground-breaking events are scheduled to take place which could result in an outbreak of violence:
12 May: President Trump will decide whether to cancel, or amend, the JCPOA with Iran;
14 May: Israel celebrates its 70th birthday;
14 May: The US moves its embassy to Jerusalem;
15 May: Palestinians to observe Nakba Day, and vow to breach the Gaza border with Israel.
With last month’s far-reaching retaliatory raid on a dozen Syrian air defence sites and Iranian targets, including Iran’s drone command centre, Israel sought to make clear there would be a cost if Assad and his Iranian allies provoked Israel again in the near future. By causing heavy damage to Syrian defence infrastructure but not going “all the way” and decimating its air defence units, Israel should be well positioned to deter future incursions into its airspace. It demonstrated that it could demolish Syrian forces if necessary to establish complete air superiority, and by not doing so, gave Damascus an incentive to avoid future conflict.
The first-ever direct strikes on manned Iranian fixtures in Syria also demonstrated what may become an important component of Israeli strategy to deter Iran in Syria: Iranian forces stationed in Damascus are 800 miles from Tehran and only a few dozen miles from Israel, which leaves them extremely vulnerable to Israeli aerial attacks. After Israel’s counterstrike, the Iranian-led axis appears to have backed down. Russia’s statement urging “all sides to exercise restraint” indicated that it was not supportive of Iran’s provocations that might put Moscow’s project of saving the Assad regime at risk.
However, General Amos Yadlin (former head of Israeli Military Intelligence), believes that Russia can play a critical role and that conflict will be inevitable unless Vladimir Putin steps in to prevent it. What form might that take?
Interestingly, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) has just picked up a report from the German media that, in the interests of containing Iran, diplomats might put three proposals to Putin. Firstly, political-ideological recognition of Russia’s parity with the US as a great power, a status Putin is striving to regain. Secondly, recognition of Russia’s continued presence in Syria, which has a military/strategic importance for Russia. Thirdly, Western and Gulf state capital injections for rebuilding Syria in such a way that Russia is the prime contractor, with all the financial benefits that that entails.
There would be several advantages to the West, and, of course, Israel. Firstly, co-operation with Russia in Syria could de-escalate the international crisis that has caused such chaos, particularly with the waves of refugees that are impacting security consequences across Europe. Secondly, it bypasses the problem of cancelling the sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea. Thirdly, and most importantly, a recognised Russian presence in Syria would create significant pressure on Iran, with diminished support of Iran’s policies in the region severely impacting Iran’s expansionist capabilities.
This would also be much welcomed in the capitals of the Sunni Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where recent Israeli missile strikes against the Syrians and Iranians were met with unusually muted criticism. Crown Prince Salman continues to make positive statements about Israel, the latest being that he believes the Israelis have the right to their own state. The Jerusalem Post reported this week that “a Saudi prince” had made a covert visit to Israel earlier in the week, and the speculation is that it might have been the Crown Prince himself. Such a development might be met with some scepticism by a conservative Saudi public, but perhaps less so with the younger generation.
Egypt’s al-Sissi continues to battle ISIS terrorists in Northern Sinai with mixed results. Deadly bombings are taking their toll, notwithstanding the military co-operation between the Egyptian and Israeli forces, which is understood to be functioning well. It is said that Israeli assistance is limited to their (unmarked) drone strikes. There has been increasing tension between Egypt and the Hamas in Gaza, as the former suspects the latter might be playing a destabilising role in Sinai.
Who, a few years ago, could have imagined such a dramatic shift in perceived interests? Such is the Middle East’s new paradigm.
Christopher Dreyfus is a former member of Council of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, London.