December 12, 2016 - Syria

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses what the ramifications are for Israel and the region of Aleppo's falling to the Assad regime and its allies, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah; if that means the end of the war; what will happen to Assad’s Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies as his regime regains control; how this is affecting Lebanon; what sort of Turkey is emerging from recent years’ revolution in neighboring Syria and recent months’ abortive revolution in Turkey itself; what sort of regime we can now expect to develop in Syria; where all this leaves Israel; how it contributes to Israeli-Sunni Arab relations; and how Syria affects the Palestinian situation.

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Q. Aleppo in northern Syria is falling to the Assad regime and its allies from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. What are the ramifications for Israel and the region?

A. Aleppo is Syria’s largest city and its economic hub. Its re-conquest by the regime and its allies signals the end of an important phase in the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime has survived against heavy odds. It will likely soon seek to mop up significant pockets of opposition in southwest Syria near the borders with Jordan and Israel and in the northwest Idlib enclave bordering Turkey. If it succeeds, it will control virtually all of “Useful Syria”, i.e., the non-desert western half, though pockets of resistance will undoubtedly remain.

This development has far-reaching ramifications for the Middle East region including Israel, for Europe (the refugee issue), and for Putin’s Russia and Trump’s United States.

 

Q. So that ends the war. . .

A. Not at all. First, because much of the eastern or desert half will remain under the control of ISIS. Just last week, ISIS succeeded in reoccupying the eastern Syrian city of Palmyra (Tadmor) with its renowned archeological ruins. The ISIS attack on Palmyra is an indication that Assad’s forces are depleted and stretched. Assad has hitherto preferred to avoid fighting ISIS; at an early stage in 2011-12 he even cynically released militant Islamists from his jails in the hope of sowing discord within the opposition and discrediting it. What his regime and its allies will now do about Syria’s east is an important issue to follow.

Secondly, Assad will still have to reckon with the Kurds of northern Syria, where the YPG Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units have carved out semi-independent enclaves near the border with Turkey. The Syrian Kurds are not Islamists--indeed, some are radical socialist reformers who have given more freedom to women than any other Muslim entity in the Middle East. The Kurds have developed close battlefield coordination with the US and enjoy the sympathy of the Russians. On the other hand, Erdogan’s Turkey views them as an enemy that is allied with Turkey’s own large Kurdish minority, with which Ankara’s relations have badly deteriorated. A breakaway militant Turkish Kurdish group, Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, just claimed responsibility for a murderous attack in Istanbul that killed 37 Turks, mostly policemen. Relations among Turkey, Syria and the Kurds are another key and complex issue to follow.

 

Q. What will happen to Assad’s Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies as his regime regains control?

A. In rescuing Assad’s regime, both Russia and Iran acted out of a sense of strategic self-interest, mixed perhaps with a minor degree of sentimental commitment to a long-time strategic partner--more Syria’s Alawite regime than Bashar Assad per se. One way or another, they are in Syria to stay. Russia has apparently extracted permanent air and naval base rights on the Syrian coast, thereby radically altering strategic power relationships in the eastern Mediterranean. Iran increasingly sees Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon as the fruits of its power-projection among Shiite and quasi-Shiite (i.e., Alawite) Muslims in an age of Sunni Arab revolutionary chaos. Iranians and their foreign legion of Shiite mercenaries from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have shed blood for Assad, and they won’t let him forget it.

 

Q. Lebanon too is part of Iran’s hegemonic design?

A. After prolonged political stalemate, Lebanon just elected a pro-Syria, pro-Hezbollah president, Michel Aoun. Lebanon’s always-flexible politicians have read the writing on the wall: big-brother Syria is surviving, not the least due to the military support of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s dominant Shiite militia. Accordingly, the war has aggrandized Hezbollah’s influence inside Lebanon, and with it the influence of Hezbollah’s state sponsor Iran and of Syria’s new-old ally, Russia.

 

Q. You mentioned Turkey and the Kurds. What sort of Turkey is emerging from recent years’ revolution in neighboring Syria and recent months’ abortive revolution in Turkey itself?

A. President Erdogan’s “Neo-Ottoman” strategy of eliminating all conflicts and friction along Turkey’s borders is in tatters. By abandoning an attempt to integrate Turkish Kurds politically and culturally he has re-activated a Kurdish enemy within Turkey and generated another, related Kurdish enemy in northern Syria. Relations with Syria’s Assad do not exist; Turkey continues to support a variety of Syrian anti-Assad forces. Relations with Iran and especially Russia, Assad’s allies, are tense.

No wonder Erdogan, even as he pushes an autocratic, Islamist agenda at home, has made amends with Israel and recently laid on an elaborate welcome for Israel’s new ambassador in Ankara, Eitan Naeh. While Israel and Turkey have not found enough common ground to sustain a new security relationship--Israel still has not returned a new military attache to Ankara--Turkey has found it necessary to back off from its more extreme demands regarding access to the Hamas regime in Gaza. Turkey also wants to buy Israel’s Mediterranean gas. If Erdogan’s domestic and regional situation continues to deteriorate, we might conceivably see enhancement of Turkish-Israel strategic ties as well.

 

Q. What sort of regime can we now expect to develop in Syria?

A. Here it is important to understand the nature of the Assad regime. Think of it as a mafia gang: a minority (Alawites and other Syrian minorities) in constant confrontation with a majority (Sunnis), jealous of its “territory”, accustomed to maintaining rule even in “good” times through violent repression, and paranoid regarding rival challenges.  If this portrayal is correct, the regime will not be magnanimous in victory; it will be vengeful to an extreme. Accordingly, assuming the regime indeed succeeds now in consolidating its power militarily and territorially in western Syria, we can expect a prolonged period of domestic oppression. Reports on summary executions of surrendering rebels in Aleppo are just a preview.

 

Q. Where does all this leave Israel?

A. One of the paradoxes of PM Netanyahu’s strategic behavior is that the more he drags Israel toward the self-inflicted disaster of a messianic one-state apartheid-like reality with the Palestinians, the more he succeeds in enhancing Israel’s relations with its Sunni Arab neighbors Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and even (see above) Turkey. The Syrian civil war is certainly one contributing factor when it comes to the Palestinians. It is the major contributing factor when it comes to Israel’s Sunni neighbors.

 

Q. How does it contribute to enhanced Israeli-Sunni Arab relations?

A. Israel and its Sunni Arab neighbors share concern regarding all the militant Islamists in Syria: Shiite (Iran, Hezbollah) and Sunni (ISIS, Qaeda). This has brought them closer strategically. The relationship has been further enhanced by Netanyahu’s caution regarding the military challenges posed by the fighting across Israel’s border with Syria. Israel has carefully avoided taking sides, and has shunned all but the most necessary military action dictated by immediate threats across its borders. When Russia entered the Syria fray in September 2015, Netanyahu and Putin quickly reached agreement on ways to avoid friction between the Russian and Israeli air forces.

Last week, Israel once again allegedly attacked and destroyed strategic weaponry being transferred by Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The weapons were destroyed near the Damascus military airport, an area clearly covered by Russian air defense emplacements on Syrian soil. Israeli Defense Minister Lieberman commented that Israel cannot tolerate chemical weaponry reaching Hezbollah--an apparent indirect indication that the attack targeted Syrian chemical weapons. Neither Russia nor Hezbollah said a word of protest. On the other hand, in an unusual step the Assad regime did acknowledge the attack, thereby apparently reflecting Damascus’ growing self-confidence that it is weathering the storm and might soon address Israel militarily.

 

Q. How does Syria affect the Palestinian situation?

A. The chaos in Syria has for several years dictated a wait-and-see, keep-your-powder-dry attitude on the part of both Hamas and the PLO. Hamas in Gaza is almost completely isolated strategically: neighboring Egypt is thoroughly hostile and Islamist patron Turkey is minimalist (see above). Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority with its wobbly leadership (see last week’s Q & A) and consistent fear of Islamist and other challenges is maintaining peace and quiet with Israel and attacking only on the international diplomatic front. And it is doing so with minimal Sunni Arab backing. The Egyptians, Jordanians, Saudis and Gulf principalities are far more preoccupied with militant Islam, for which they need Israel, than with the West Bank. Saudi Arabia is withholding financial assistance, while Egypt and the UAE are sponsoring PA leader Abbas’s nemesis, Mohammed Dahlan.

Hence Netanyahu can claim that Israel has never had it so good regionally. He can anticipate, with a degree of caution, that a Trump administration in Washington will support Netanyahu’s regional and Palestinian stance: caution, because Trump is so unpredictable even if his prospective cabinet includes a few hawks who are gunning for Islam and have a warm spot for Netanyahu and even for the settlements.

But storm clouds are gathering. In Syria, an aggressive Iranian and Hezbollah presence, an Assad regime with a score to settle, and an unpredictable Russia likely to be backed by an unpredictable Trump. In Israel-Palestine, Netanyahu’s apparent convenient default option--the direction of least resistance--of a horrific one-state reality.

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