By Yaakov Lappin/JNS.org
Iran is expanding into Syria, converting the country into a military and weapons base, filling it with heavily armed Shi’a proxy forces, and earmarking it as a launchpad for future attacks on Israel.
Israel, in turn, has recently put the international community on notice, warning that a failure to stop the Iranian push into Syria will result in Israeli military action.
In this context, Israeli officials have traveled to the U.S. and Russia in recent weeks, to share information on Iran’s military moves into Syria, and to sound out the alarm over what may come next.
Yet it remains far from clear that either Moscow or Washington can or will pressure the Iranians to stop. According to one report, Russia has placed its advanced S-400 air defense system near Iranian weapons factories in Syria. The factories purportedly produce long-range guided missiles for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah to use against Israel. Russia has not confirmed the report.
In August, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Sochi, Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin at his summer residence for an urgent meeting on Iran’s activities in Syria.
Iran, which runs the ground war in Syria on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, has become an important regional ally of Russia, which oversees air operations in support of the Iranian-led axis. Together, they have managed to turn the tide in the Syrian war against the Sunni rebel organizations. The Assad regime has been regaining increasing amounts of territory, into which Iran and its agents pour in. Islamic State’s collapse is also leaving behind a vacuum that is being filled by Iran.
Meanwhile, a senior Israeli defense delegation, made up of the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, and the leader of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, Maj.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, landed in Washington in mid-August to discuss what Iran is doing in Syria with U.S. National Security Adviser, H. R. McMaster.
Israeli delegation members noted “a kind of embarrassment and lack of a clear position” among Trump administration officials regarding America’s commitments in the Middle East, particularly in regards to preventing the spread of Iranian influence in Syria, Yedioth Ahronoth reported.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told The Jerusalem Post that “the Americans fully support the Israeli objectives…at least from a macro perspective, the Americans and Israelis are of the same mind.” Yet the newspaper reported that Friedman was “unwilling to discuss…how this objective of keeping Iran out of a post-civil war Syria can be reached.”
According to Prof. Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from Tel Aviv University, the U.S. is prepared to hand off Syria to Russia. "As part of this package deal, which will free the Trump administration from the burden of Syria, the U.S. is willing to accept the Russian willingness to grant Iran a grip on Syria," he told JNS.org.
Zisser said Russia is aware of Israel's concerns, and is willing to move Hezbollah and Iran back from the Israeli border by a few miles, but that ultimately, Moscow views Iran as a legitimate force. Moscow also thinks that Israel has to come to accept Iran as such, so long as the Iranian presence does not turn into a missile attack on Israel.
"The bottom line is that neither Russia nor the U.S. are accepting Israel's outcry, and are unwilling to push Iran out of Syria," he said. "They even view it as a stabilizing factor, and apparently they do not take Israel's threats very seriously."
Israel’s diplomatic warning campaign is in full swing, but it is reasonable to believe that the real objective is to create legitimacy for future Israeli action, Israel’s former National Security Adviser, Maj.-Gen. Yaakov Amidror, told JNS.org.
“The Israeli warning regarding an intention to set red lines is important, not because the two powers (the U.S. and Russia) will act, but because when Israel acts, it will have much more legitimacy,” said Amidror.
Col. (ret.) Reuven Erlich, director of Tel Aviv-based Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which has been monitoring events in Syria, said that America’s goal is to dismantle Islamic State’s control in areas of Syria—not to engage in nation-building there or prevent the buildup of Iranian-backed Shi’a forces.
“The U.S. policy in Syria is to destroy ISIS’s territorial control,” he said, explaining that other issues, like the Syrian regime’s relations with others, are out of the range of American policy or capabilities in Syria.
“So if we suddenly see Shi’ite militias and Hezbollah in the Syrian Golan Heights, they (the Americans) will not be able to do much,” Erlich said.
He added, “But the U.S. can activate pressure levers that it has with Russia, which is and will continue to be a strong player in Syria, and which can pressure the Syrian regime. The U.S. is not, however, building a position on the ground that would enable it to come to our assistance if we need it.”
Russia does have a presence in Syria, and therefore, an ability to influence the Damascus regime and Iran, Erlich argued. Still, he said, “The Russians will not enter into a confrontation with Iran because of us. But if they realize that an Iranian presence in the Golan Heights will have a price, the Russians can be a restraining factor. That too, however, is in doubt.”
Ultimately, Erlich said, Israel must rely on its own ability to defend itself. Quoting Hillel the Elder, he said, “There is a saying: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman Aug. 24 released a statement that was both unusual and littered with clues about the seriousness of the latest developments.
"The fact that Iran is trying to turn the whole of Syrian territory into a forward outpost against the State of Israel, with military bases, with thousands of Shi'ite mercenaries that are brought in from all over the Middle East into Syria, with an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) air force base, with an IRGC naval base, the attempt to manufacture precision weaponry in Lebanon—this is a reality that we do not intend to accept," he said.
Lieberman said Netanyahu’s meeting in Sochi was part of an attempt to use every available diplomatic avenue, hinting heavily that military action would follow if diplomacy failed.
“All that we are trying to do right now is to use all of these avenues to solve the problem,” he said.
In a clearly veiled warning, Lieberman added, “I hope that we can solve it through the diplomatic channels, through the international community, with vigorous activity in every direction. I hope we will not have to think otherwise.”