The threat that Iran will choose to initiate a devastating war in the Middle East, from its perch in Syria, continues to rise.
Last Thursday, forces wearing Syrian military uniforms along the Syrian side of the border with Israel at Quneitra in the Golan Heights hoisted the Syrian flag at the border crossing. It was the first time the regime had asserted its control over the border zone since 2014.
The regime’s reconquest of southwestern Syria, along the borders with Jordan and Israel, in recent weeks has been accompanied by repeated penetration of Israeli territory by projectiles from Syria.
Last Tuesday, Israel shot down a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi 22 that crossed into its territory. Last Wednesday, so-called Islamic State (ISIS) forces in southern Syria shot two missilesinto Israel that fell into the Sea of Galilee just a few dozen yards from beachgoers. The Israeli navy located one of the missiles, but is still looking for the other one, which reportedly failed to detonate.
Israel deployed its David’s Sling ballistic missile defense system for the first time this week against projectiles launched from Syria. The system failed to intercept a Syrian missile, which was eventually shot down by a Patriot missile battery.
Aside from the ISIS missiles, which Israeli security officials believe were shot to pull Israel into the Syrian civil war, military officials believe that the other penetrations of Israeli territory from Syria were errant events caused by navigation and firing errors, and Israel’s close proximity to battle areas.
Israel shot down the jet to secure its deterrence by making clear all violations of its sovereignty will be met with force and counterattack.
While it is not easy to know what the future holds, it is clear enough that for now, the bad guys have won the war in Syria.
Syrian President Bashar Assad, who deliberately and brutally murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people and caused 6 million of his countrymen to flee their homes, has survived despite promises by the Obama administration and its partners that he would not survive the war in power.
Assad owes his survival to two outside powers: Iran and Russia. Iran has directed Assad’s war effort, including his mass killing from the outset of the war in 2011. Through its Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Hezbollah and Shiite militia proxies, Iran supplied the ground forces to secure Assad’s control of territory. Assad needed these forces because over the years, at least half of his armed forces deserted their posts. Today, Assad still lacks the manpower to hold the territories he is reclaiming. Iranian-controlled forces still comprise the bulwark of the “Syrian regime forces.”
As Iran supplied Assad with his army, Russia has served as his air force since 2015. Had Russian President Vladimir Putin not sent his bombers to Syria, Assad and his Iranian controllers would probably have lost the war. In exchange for saving him, Assad gave Putin the Khmeimim air base and the Tartus naval base.
This outcome is deeply problematic for the U.S. and for Israel. Russia’s position in Syria has made it both the most powerful actor in Syria and a major power broker in the Middle East as a whole. So long as U.S. and Russian positions are unaligned, particularly in relation to Iran, Russia’s empowerment comes at America’s expense.
For Israel, Russia’s appearance in Syria ended the air superiority it has held since 1982. Once Putin stepped in, any thought of Israel helping to overthrow Assad disappeared.
Israel’s primary interest in the war has from the outset was to prevent Iran from transferring precision weapons to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon through Syria. Since it became clear that the Iranian-controlled Assad regime would defeat its opponents, Israel’s goal has been to end the Iranian presence in Syria altogether.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has worked avidly to forge an operational partnership with Putin in the hopes of diminishing Russia’s commitment to Iran generally, and to Iran’s control over the Syrian regime more specifically. To Putin’s credit, he has opted to avoid confrontation with Israel and to accept Israel’s right to attack his Iranian partners. But his strategic ties to Iran remain significant and present a major challenge to Israel and the U.S.
This is the case because Iran’s position in Syria poses a massive threat to Israel. Unlike the Syrian regime, which avoided direct conflict with Israel after Israel destroyed its air force in 1982, Iran is interested in a war with Israel.
Iran’s Hezbollah proxy army has exerted effective control over Lebanon since 2008. Hezbollah has 150,000 missiles pointing at Israel. Its forces have now gained massive combat experience through their participation in the war in Syria. Hezbollah also has effective control over the U.S.-armed and trained Lebanese Armed Forced, (LAF).
Iran’s control over the Syrian ground forces increases the prospect of war not only against Israel, but against U.S. forces in the Middle East and against Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s threats against oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and the Bab el Mandab at the mouth of the Red Sea – the two sea lanes that control all seabound oil shipments from the Middle East — cannot be seen in isolation from its presence in Syria. There is a possibility that Iran may choose to begin a major war against the U.S. and its allies by attacking Israel from Syria and Lebanon. Add to that the fact that Iran controls the Hamas regime in Gaza as well, and we are looking at the prospect of a war breaking out along any one of these Iranian-controlled fronts, which could easily become a regionwide war.
This week, Saudi Arabia was forced to suspend its oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandab when Iranian-controlled Houthi forces in Yemen attacked two oil tankers traversing the narrow strait.
Given this state of affairs, the main question is: how can Iran be contained?
From a military perspective, the U.S. and Israel have limited assets in Syria. Israel is willing to deploy its air force against Iranian targets throughout Syria. But Israel will not deploy ground forces to Syria unless it is forced to do so in the framework of a major war.
The U.S., for its part, has 2,000 special forces in Syria on the eastern side of the Euphrates, and air assets at Tanf air base located along the Syrian border with Jordan and Iraq. The U.S. can call up significant forces as well in Iraq.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the U.S. has no intention of removing its forces from Syria so long as Iran threatens the region through its deployment in Syria. But it is fairly clear that U.S. public opinion and Trump’s own disposition rule out any major deployment of additional U.S. forces in Syria.
Over the course of America’s campaign against ISIS in Syria, the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces have served as America’s ground troops. If the U.S. provided them with proper guarantees, the Kurds would probably be willing to assist in operations against Iranian-controlled regime forces in order to secure their territory in northeastern Syria.
Then there are the Sunnis.
National Security Adviser John Bolton has spoken about eventually replacing U.S. forces in Syria with allied Arab forces.
While a combined Saudi, United Arab Emirates, and Egyptian force could be helpful in providing ground troops, it is doubtful that they could succeed in a mission to contain or defeat Iran without U.S. command-and-control and air support.
The U.S. also has major economic leverage. Its sanctions against Iran, which will begin to go into effect in August and will go into full effect in November, will paralyze Iraneconomically.
Iran is already in the grips of the worst economic crisis in decades. The return of U.S. sanctions against it will render the regime incapable of providing basic services, and significantly expand the prospect of a major effort by the Iranian people to overthrow the regime.
While this is the desired endstate for the U.S., Israel, the Sunni Arab states, and most of the nations of the world, the Iranian regime may decide to go to war with its back to the wall simply to try to bring down its enemies with it. And the implications of such a war for the world economy could be devasting. Just as Hezbollah has 150,000 missiles pointed at Israel, Iran has thousands of missiles pointed at Saudi Arabia’s oil platforms.
Given the limited nature of U.S. and Israeli assets in Syria, and the possible military implications of bringing the regime to the brink of collapse economically, diplomacy must form a major component of any strategy whose goal is to coerce Iran to leave Syria without provoking a major Middle Eastern war.
To achieve any diplomatic goals, it is necessary to work with Putin. Trump’s summit with Putin on July 16 in Helsinki was organized in large part to achieve an agreement regarding Syria. It is still unclear what the two leaders agreed to, but what is clear enough is that a follow-on meeting between Netanyahu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on July 23 failed to achieve meaningful results.
In response to the U.S.-Israel demand that all Iranian forces be removed from Syria, Lavrov offered to withdraw Iranian forces to a distance of 100 kilometers from the Israeli border. Netanyahu and Israel’s security leadership scoffed at the offer, pointing to the fact that Iranian, Hezbollah, and Shiite militia forces are all operating along the Israeli border in Syrian uniforms.
Netanyahu reinstated Israel’s demand that all Iranian forces and Iranian-controlled forces withdraw from Syria and added three new demands. He insisted on the closure of Syria’s borders with Iraq and Syria; the destruction of the Iranian precision-guided missile factories operating in Syria; and the removal of the surface-to-air missile batteries now protecting the missile factories. Lavrov in turn, rejected the Israeli demands.
It is not clear whether Russia is facilitating Iranian operations in Syria because the Russians cannot prevent them, or if Putin is simply waiting for an offer from the U.S. and Israel that he cannot refuse.
What is absolutely apparent is that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of alleged Russian interference on behalf of Trump in the 2016 elections — and the brutal onslaught against Trump by the media, the Democrats, and former Obama administration officials in the aftermath of his summit with Putin — make it impossible for the Trump administration to pursue a diplomatic course with Russia. This, despite the fact that such a move is critical to prevent war.
Israeli military officials assess that Assad and Iran will not rush into a conflict with Israel. And Russia has made clear that it will not support their operations against the Jewish state. But the danger lurks and grows with each passing day.
It is clear enough that given the enormous stakes in Syria, as events unfold, all U.S. and Israeli assets in relation to Iran/Syria – military, economic and diplomatic – should be deployed in a coordinated manner to eject Iran and its proxies from Syria while avoiding a major war.
It is a major setback that due to the Mueller probe, and the U.S. media’s mobilization on its behalf, America is blocked at this critical juncture from seeking a diplomatic accord with Russia that would contribute significantly to the achievement of this vital goal.