The agreement reached during the G-20 meetings in Hamburg between U.S. President Trump and Russian President Putin on July 7, 2017, about establishing a de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria was accepted with mixed feelings in Israel.
Jerusalem, of course, welcomes stability in the southern part of Syria. But Prime Minister Netanyahu voiced concern about the agreement mainly because it focused on the de-escalation zone. It tacitly gave legitimacy to the prolonged presence of Iranian and Iranian-backed forces throughout the regions of Syria nominally controlled by the Assad regime.
Israeli doubts about this American policy will probably intensify following Trump’s decision to curtail U.S. assistance to opposition groups that were supported by the CIA. Moreover, Israel is alarmed by recent reports about negotiations between Russia and the United States that practically allow Assad to stay in power and that guarantee a favorable division of the territory between Assad and his supporters and the forces who cooperate with the United States.
Israeli Concerns about Iran in Syria
Israel has five major concerns regarding the Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Two of them are an immediate concern. Israel regards these specific two as tripwires that if and when crossed, Israel will react. These are:
- Iran’s ongoing effort together with its proxy Hizbullah to turn the northern part of the Golan Heights into a base from which the Iranians could launch – via their proxies – terror activities against Israel. Throughout the civil war in Syria, Israel countered Iranian efforts to establish a launching pad for terror attacks in the northern Golan Heights with the decisive reaction that foiled these attempts. Last year, it seemed that Iranians got the message, and they have been much more cautious about this idea.
Iran’s presence in Syria allows for the acceleration of the delivery of military equipment to Hizbullah through Syria, including the supply of “tie-breaking” weapons and weapons components, such as –
- precision guidance for Iranian-made missiles such as the Fatah 110 and missiles with heavier payloads;
- land-to-sea missiles produced by Iran, China, and Russia (C-704, C-802, Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missile with a 600 km range;
- SA-22 air defense system and a wide variety of anti-aircraft missiles produced in Russia and Iran);
- unmanned air vehicles, drones;
- mini submarines (Ghadir type);
- anti-tank missiles, etc.
So far, Israel has not been shy about hitting those armed shipments on Syrian territory. Recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu even admitted that Israel carried out “dozens and dozens” of such attacks. If Iran managed to solidify its presence in Syria and most of all, establish an Iranian-controlled ground corridor stretching from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon (the “Shia Crescent”), it would be able to deliver these arms with greater safety and with fewer limits on the kinds of weapons to be delivered. In the meantime, due to ongoing Israeli interdictions, the Iranians have already embarked on building weapons production factories in Lebanon and maybe in Syria that will facilitate the supply to Hizbullah of advanced weaponry. (To some extent Iran did the same with Hamas in Gaza.)
But beyond these two well-known concerns, the Iranian presence in Syria should worry Israel for three other reasons, which are no less dangerous.
- Iran almost assuredly wants to turn Syria into an Iranian military base. Iran plans to build in Syria a naval base, and it may move ground forces, missiles, and maybe even aircraft to Syria so that instead of threatening Israel from 1,300 kilometers away, the Iranian forces could sit on Israel’s doorstep. This would bring about a dramatic change in the nature of the threat Israel is facing. In fact, Israel’s neighbor to the north would no longer be Syria anymore, but Iran, using a Syrian facade with impunity.
- An Iranian stronghold in Syria will significantly weaken the pragmatic elements in the Sunni Arab world and put the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan under threat – with its geo-strategic importance for Israel and the Sunni Arabs. This is not only a concern of Israel but of course, denies sleep from other Arab states.
- The Iranians may take advantage of their continuous presence in Syria and Assad’s deep dependence on Iranian support for the survival of his regime and his Alawite sect to make progress on Syrian territory in their nuclear program. Under the JCPOA, the IAEA can monitor nuclear activities in Iran but has no authority to monitor Iranian activity abroad or to follow Iranian scientists. Iran may use these loopholes to conduct research and development of nuclear-related material in Syria.
As a reminder: ten years ago, Syria nearly completed a secret nuclear facility in Deir Ez-Zor with Iranian and North Korean assistance. The facility was destroyed in September 2007.
The Russian interest in this negotiated deal reflects the Russian commitment to keep Basher al-Assad as president of Syria and to secure the ongoing presence of Russian military bases in Syria. Russia considers Iran as an irreplaceable protector of Assad. Putin is also motivated by the Russian interest in weakening radical Sunni forces that constitute the most effective elements of the opposition to Assad. Russia is also plagued by radical Sunni opposition within Russia itself. Continuous Iranian presence in Syria is a strategic interest for Moscow. In the long run, if Assad again becomes capable of standing on his own feet, the value of the Iranian presence may erode, but since this is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, the strategic alliance between Russia and Iran will remain strong.
For the Islamist regime in Iran, their interests in Syria go far beyond strategic. It is part of its ideology. The entire regime is committed to spreading its version of Islam, turning Iran into the hegemonic force of the Middle East and Muslim world and bringing about the end of the Jewish State. The taking over of Syria goes hand-in-hand with the Iranian regime’s efforts in Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the Arab world. Therefore, Iran will not show any readiness to leave Syria unless the price for staying there becomes very high.
Former U.S. President Obama granted Iran a free hand in Syria in return for the JCPOA because he believed that Iran is a force for good that may contribute to stability and help in destroying the Islamic State. He wondered why the Saudis were not ready to share power in the Middle East with the Iranians.
Trump was expected to adopt a different attitude based on his declarations that “Iran is evil” and the impression he gave that in return for allowing the Russians to keep Assad temporarily in power, he would demand from them a commitment to oust the Iranians from Syria. But the latest deal reached between Trump and Putin seems to ignore this commitment. That worries Israel not only because it allows Iran to stay with all the above-mentioned consequences, but because it casts doubt over the depth of American commitment, the ability of the Americans to deliver, or the relevance of the “Art of the Deal” to the Middle East and international politics.
Russia and the United States announced that they took Israeli security concerns into consideration. But so far it seems that only Israel’s first two concerns have been into account – possibly even only one. That leaves Israel on its own because the last three other concerns aren’t taken into account.
As always, Israel will have to take care of its interests first of all by itself. It is, therefore, no surprise that given this situation, Israel exposed its “Good Neighbor” program, under which it supplies humanitarian aid to the Syrian population in the Golan Heights. By doing so, Israel sent a message that left alone, it will find ways to protect its interests in Syria.