This week, Alpher discusses whether, in the wake of the mass demonstration in Tel Aviv marking the twentieth anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin and his assassin’s brother “celebrating” the occasion by suggesting that God remove President Rivlin and his associates from the world, Israel has learned anything from Rabin’s death; if diplomatic negotiations in Vienna regarding an agreed solution for Syria have any meaning, given Russian bombing in southern Syria near the Israeli border, Iran sending more and more troops to Syria, the US sending 50 commandos, and Israel reportedly still intercepting Syrian arms shipments to Hezbollah; a "compare and contrast" of US and Russian military behavior in Syria; how Russian military involvement affects Israel’s decision-making regarding Syria; and potential factors for change there in addition to the Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria and the new US token deployment;
Q. Last Saturday night, a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv marked the twentieth anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. His assassin’s brother “celebrated” the occasion by suggesting that God remove President Rivlin and his associates from the world. Has Israel learned nothing from Rabin’s death?
A. Worse than nothing. The country is more intolerant, more violent and more hyper-nationalistic in its behavior than ever. Rivlin, a right-winger who (unlike Rabin in his day) wants Israel to hold onto the West Bank but who also advocates complete equality for Arabs under Israeli rule, is the object of vile threats in the electronic media. Hagai Amir was briefly detained and fined for his threat against Rivlin, but most of those whose Facebook posts tell Rivlin to “die you hater of Israel” and who sign their names, appear somehow to be protected by the right to freedom of speech.
Those who came to the demonstration Saturday night applauded Rivlin, as they did former US president Bill Clinton and (by video) President Obama. Yet the entire event seemed to many Israelis to be somehow out-of-touch in its advocacy of peace and democracy at a time when peace is nowhere to be found (not only in Israel and Palestine but throughout the Middle East), right-wing extremists in the government are daily proposing measures to restrict citizens’ rights in Israel, and PM Netanyahu asserts that we shall “forever live by the sword.”
As Yediot Aharonot liberal commentator Nahum Barnea concluded following the demonstration, “The problem is that this type of anger--anger over the collapse of democratic values, over the encouragement of xenophobia, over racism, over violence in society--has no voters today. The public is moving to the right, which is completely legitimate, but somebody has to warn it that it is being herded to the edge of the abyss. . . . [These days no one would listen even to] David Grossman or Amos Oz. Israeli society is currently suffering from attention-deficit disorder.”
Q. Russia is now bombing in southern Syria near the Israeli border. Iran is sending more and more troops to Syria. The US is sending 50 commandos. Israel is reportedly still intercepting Syrian arms shipments to Hezbollah. Against this backdrop, do diplomatic negotiations in Vienna regarding an agreed solution for Syria have any meaning?
A. Since the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement, we appear to be witnessing in Syria a dual escalation, diplomatic and military. Both Iran and Russia have assessed that the agreement gives them greater freedom to intervene militarily in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. But precisely because their intervention saves that regime and the one-third or so of Syrian territory it controls, and because Iran’s new status rates it an invitation to diplomatic talks, they are ostensibly prepared to discuss compromise proposals regarding Assad’s future.
Not to be outdone by Moscow and Tehran in shaping Syria’s future on the battlefield, Washington has now for the first time committed elite ground troops there. Of course, “fewer than 50” American commandos is little more than a symbolic measure. But boots on the ground are boots on the ground: they constitute escalation. Washington seemingly feels it necessary to play “catch-up” with Moscow on the Syrian battlefield.
Q. Can you compare and contrast US and Russian military behavior in Syria?
A. Put simply, the US is reluctant and minimalist because it really wants to extricate itself from Middle East wars in favor of diplomacy and regional coalitions, whereas Russia apparently perceives a need and an opportunity to do precisely the opposite: get involved. President Obama is convinced that Russia’s military meddling in Syria will only get both Moscow and Damascus deeper into trouble, whereas President Putin seems willing to ignore any possible domestic and economic consequences of intervention in order to reestablish a Russian military base on the Mediterranean coast.
The catalyst for Obama’s decision more than a year ago to reengage militarily in Iraq, albeit in a limited manner, was the beheading by the Islamic State of two Americans. In other words, only the need to fight terrorism directed against the US or its citizens justifies US intervention in the Middle East. Similarly Putin, in intervening in Syria, cites the need to take pro-active measures against the sources of Islamist terrorism inside Russia. But he also clearly believes in Russian power-projection in the region, whatever the excuse.
Both Obama and Putin are also hedging their bets. Accordingly Washington commits, first, a few thousand trainers and advisers to Iraq and now a handful of troops to Syria and extends the American military mandate in Afghanistan. In tandem, Putin encouraged all parties--except, notably, the Syrian opposition but including both Iran and Saudi Arabia--to meet last weekend in Vienna. They did not appear to agree on much beyond the need for some ultimate sort of compromise regarding the nature of the regime in Damascus. Yet the very fact that both Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to talk to one another about Syria was deemed by some to be a significant accomplishment. Still, in the eyes of most of the region and with all due respect to diplomacy in Vienna, Russia and Iran are currently the dynamic powers to reckon with in Syria.
Q. How does Russian military involvement affect Israel’s decision-making regarding Syria?
A. Late last week the Israel Air Force reportedly intercepted a Syrian missile shipment to Hezbollah in Lebanon near Qalamoun, west of Damascus near the Syria-Lebanon border. Earlier, the Russian Air Force reportedly bombed rebel units in southern Syria, just north of the border with Jordan and some 20 km from Israel. Clearly, Israel and Russia are coordinating their aerial maneuvers as they enter one another’s potential combat arenas. So are Jordan and Russia. But if and as Russian activity in southern Syria expands and, as in the north, Iranian Quds force troops follow, Israel will face the need to reassess its strategy regarding war-torn Syria.
Until now, Israel has intervened militarily across the Golan border only when it has been fired upon or otherwise been threatened by one of the belligerents: the Syrian army, Hezbollah, or the rebels. Here and there, it has taken measures to protect Druze villages just across the border. And it has offered medical services to any and all wounded. Israel has succeeded in projecting the image of a neighbor that does not take sides. When the large Druze concentration at Suweida some 80 km from the Golan appeared around half a year ago to be threatened by militant Islamists, the Israeli security establishment consulted with Israeli Druze leaders but avoided taking action.
Now the most likely direction of developments across the Golan border would appear to be Russian and Iranian military gains against Islamist and other rebels on behalf of the Assad regime. Russian air activity does not threaten Israel and presumably can be accommodated. But what will Israel do when it confronts Iranian and Iranian-sponsored ground forces acting under a Russian military umbrella? This is the pattern we have already seen in northwest Syria, where the Russian-Iranian offensive is pushing the rebels--including “moderates” armed by the US--back away from the Alawite homeland and the vital Aleppo region and toward the Turkish border. Israel will undoubtedly wish to discuss this contingency with the United States, particularly insofar as US-led efforts to bring Tehran into a more cooperative role in international affairs have been interpreted by Iran as a green light to play a more aggressive role in Syria.
Certainly, Russia’s bombing run in southern Syria last week poses the most serious challenge yet to a Golan border status quo that Israel has been successfully managing for the past four years.
Q. Yet the Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria and even the new US token deployment are surely not the only potential factors for change there.
A. No. Big question marks hang over the coming actions of two key neighbors: Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
In Turkey, President Erdogan’s AKParty won an election on Sunday in which his government’s open antagonism toward both Turkish and Syrian Kurds was a key factor. Erdogan may now feel that his hand has been freed to play a more aggressive role inside Syria itself on behalf of at least some of the Islamist rebels and against both the Kurds and the Assad regime.
Such an anti-Assad stance could be welcomed by the Saudis. Some Saudi security circles claim to be winning the war against Iranian proxies in Yemen (that claim and the orientation of Iran’s alleged proxy allies there are disputed in many non-Saudi circles) and consequently to be encouraged to play a more active military role in Syria against the Assad regime.
Greater Turkish and/or Saudi military activism in Syria could seriously complicate the situation--not only for Russia and Iran with their pro-Assad stance but even for the US-led coalition, which supports the Kurds and appears headed toward some sort of compromise regarding Assad.
Stay tuned. The multi-dimensional fighting in Syria is very likely to escalate in the months ahead, generating more suffering and more refugees. Israel’s non-involvement strategy could be severely tested.