June 26, 2017 - 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 it means for Israel and the US that Syria's President Bashar Assad appears to have survived the prolonged insurrection against him; why Israel has stepped up assistance, including military assistance, to relatively moderate Syrian rebel groups across the Golan border; what is changing with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon; where the US comes into the picture; and American boots on the ground in Syria and the bigger strategic picture.

 

 

Q. Syria’s President Bashar Assad appears to have survived the prolonged insurrection against him. The regime, with Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah help, is “mopping up” remaining rebels. What does this mean for Israel? For the US??

A. It is of far-reaching strategic significance. Assad has survived in “useful” or western Syria. He and his allies are now turning their attention to ISIS in eastern Syria with its oil and Euphrates water resources. The fighting there appears to be entering a new phase that is extremely important for Israel, the US, Europe and the pro-western Sunni Arab countries. If Syria’s ally Iran wins the battle, all must contemplate the prospect of Iranian Shiite and Iranian proxy forces deployed along the east coast of the Mediterranean. For Tehran, this is an extremely ambitious adventure. The last time it happened was more than 1,500 years ago, when Iranians were called Persians and Islam did not yet exist.

This new phase of the war in Syria has a number of key dimensions. One concerns Israel’s Golan border. Another, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Yet another, Iran’s unprecedented drive to establish a secure land bridge all the way from Tehran to Beirut and counter-efforts by the US, Jordan and others to block it. Finally, given the Trump administration’s lack of clearly enunciated foreign policy strategies, there is a largely open set of questions. What does the US want in Syria, what resources is it prepared to commit toward that end, and will this bring it into conflict with Russia and/or Iran?

 

Q. Let’s start with Israel’s Golan border. Recent media reports indicate that Israel has stepped up its assistance, including military assistance, to relatively moderate Syria rebel groups across the border. Why?

A. First, for the record, this was not the Wall Street Journal’s exclusive scoop. It was reported on June 15, three days before WSJ, by Syria Deeply, a Syrian opposition publication with good sources inside Syria. Note that Israel would confirm only the humanitarian aid it has been providing for several years, including hospitalization in Israel of thousands of Syrian wounded. Still, assuming the reports of extensive military aid are true, they reflect growing concern in Israeli security circles regarding the prospect that the victorious Assad regime, along with Iranian and Hezbollah forces, will continue their current drive south from Damascus all the way to Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel. In particular, Israel wants to keep Iran and Hezbollah far from its border with Syria.

That is one way in which a move to support Syrian rebels militarily could be rationalized by Israel. Another is with reference to the need to prevent or counter a southern “safe zone” conceived by Russia, Turkey and Iran and likely to be policed by them or forces loyal to them. Such a move could also bring hostile Iranian or Iranian-proxy forces right up to Israel’s Golan border.

Not unexpectedly, then, fighting between the Syrian army and southern rebels has escalated, with last weekend witnessing errant shells fired by the Syrian army landing in the Israeli Golan and the IDF retaliating against Syrian army units. If Israel is indeed facilitating the creation of its own rebel-manned safe zone just across the Golan border, this poses the danger of escalating clashes inside Syria involving Israeli-supplied arms and Israeli-trained Syrian rebel forces and escalating overflow into the Israeli Golan.

Thus far there are no reports of Israeli forces inside the Syrian Golan. Nor is this likely to happen. The IDF is extremely wary of repeating the folly of deploying forces during the late 1970s inside a southern Lebanon security zone and eventually in 1982 invading Lebanon. It took Israel 18 years to get out of Lebanon, and at a huge price in blood, treasure and deterrent profile.

PM Netanyahu has dealt very cautiously with Syria until now. A Syrian Golan safe zone manned by forces friendly to Israel may, at this point in the Syrian civil war, be a necessary measure for distancing Iran and Hezbollah. Jordan is apparently weighing or doing something similar on the Syrian side of its border.

 

Q. And Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. What is changing in that dimension?

A. Israel now confronts the prospect that a stronger and more experienced Hezbollah will, after the war in Syria, return home and foment another conflict (the last one was in 2006) along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Hezbollah expeditionary forces in Syria (and Iraq and Yemen), recruited and trained by Iran, have gained valuable combat knowhow. Back home in Lebanon the Hezbollah leadership is projecting a new and more aggressive doctrine toward Israel next time around that calls for the conquest of Israeli communities that hug the border fence.

In recent weeks, a Hezbollah nature-preservation front-organization has built intelligence observation towers on the Lebanon side of the border. Not surprisingly, they “observe” Israel, not Lebanese forestation projects. Iran, frustrated by Israel in its attempts to deliver weapons to Hezbollah via Syria, is now constructing arms factories in Hezbollah-held territory inside Lebanon itself. Israel’s response, declared in recent days, is to announce that it will not tolerate the Iranian arms plants. Israel is also building a border wall to protect kibbutzim like Hanita and Misgav Am, whose houses abut the border, from future Hezbollah snipers and commando attacks.

The Hezbollah leadership in Lebanon realizes that it is not, or not yet, prepared to fight Israel. It has suffered heavy losses in Syria defending the Assad regime, and many of its forces are still there. Yet Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared recently that next time around, Israel would face not only Lebanese Shiites but “volunteers” from as far afield as Iraq and Afghanistan--in other words, the same Iranian proxy force that is fighting for Assad in Syria.

 

Q. Where does the US come into the picture?

A. If there is one strategic objective the Trump administration appears clearly to have adopted in the Middle East, it is to contain Iran and possibly even to topple the Tehran regime. Beyond the nuclear dimension, this objective looms larger as the fight against ISIS moves into an advanced phase with the successful siege of Mosul in Iraq and the growing siege of Raqqa in Syria. As ISIS’s land base shrinks, the race is on to fill the resultant void. Iran wants a piece of it.

The chances that Syria will eventually recover all its territory and remain a single country have improved considerably in recent months. But its recovery as a nation will, in the best of circumstances, take decades. Meanwhile its allies and saviors, Russia and Iran, are staking their claims to hegemony. In this connection, Iran makes no secret of its ambition to take control over two key land routes linking Iraq, where it is already the hegemonic power, to Syria, Lebanon, and the Mediterranean. Recently, Iran even fired missiles from Iranian territory at an ISIS base in Deir a-Zour in eastern Syria in a demonstration, meant for the US, of power projection.

One east-west route that Iran covets passes from Iraq through Raqqa in northern Syria. The other links Baghdad to southern Syria along the Syria-Jordan border and is of most concern to Israel because of its proximity. Currently, modest US forces are actively working with “moderate” Syrian rebels in the south and Syrian Kurds in the north to secure these routes and keep the Iranians and their allies in Iraq and Syria from linking up along them. To that end, US Air Force aircraft have recently bombed Syrian forces and on June 18 shot down a Syrian Sukhoi bomber, provoking Russian anger and threats.

 

Q. How many US forces? American boots on the ground in Syria? What is the bigger strategic picture?

A. President Trump has reportedly given the Pentagon broad freedom of decision regarding the deployment of US forces in the region. And the Pentagon is not volunteering much information. We know there are now tens of thousands of American troops in the broader Middle East. We hear of increased deployment (“balanced” by reduced humanitarian and development aid!) as far afield as Somalia, but also in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. We also encounter growing reports of civilian casualties caused by US air attacks executed under newly relaxed rules of engagement.

Where all this will lead is difficult to predict in the absence of a clearly enunciated US strategic mission for the greater Middle East. What we see right now is mission crawl. It is almost inevitable that the body bags will soon begin to arrive at Dover, Delaware.

What most concerns Israel is the US effort to stop Iran in Syria. Iran is allied with both Syria and Russia. Iran and Russia are present on Syrian soil at the invitation of Damascus, whereas the US presence there is not authorized by the Syrians (in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is authorized by the host government or the UN). Nor has the US under Trump taken a clear position regarding the future status of Bashar Assad, whose legitimacy Moscow, Tehran and lately Paris all recognize.

The US and Iran are already beginning to clash in Syria, where their goals, unlike in Iraq, are antithetical. US-Russian friction in Syria is also almost certain to grow. This too has ramifications for Israel, which is allied with the US but has been successful since September 2015 in coordinating militarily with Russia regarding air operations in Syria.

American Middle East policy was likened last week by Emile Simpson in Foreign Policy to “a sheepdog who is good at barking, but has little sense of direction: The Middle East is now in the position of its harried flock.” The recent fiasco in which Trump’s Riyadh visit triggered a major schism between Qatar and Saudi Arabia is a good example. The absence of a clear US position regarding Kurdish aspirations in northern Iraq and northern Syria is another, as is the concomitant US confusion over how to deal with Turkey regarding Syria and the Kurds.

But the most urgent issue is now Syria-Iran-Russia. Here the “harried flock” has multiple shepherds. The danger of a serious clash involving American forces in or around Syria is increasingly palpable. In the absence of a viable US strategy and with a zigzagging President Trump at the helm, such a clash could force US policy to veer in a dangerous direction. Israel’s concerns regarding Iran’s role in Syria and Lebanon on its northern borders hang in the balance.

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