This article was published in Arab News on September 11, 2017.
In Syria, Israel intervenes at its peril
An air attack took place in the early morning of Sept. 7 near Masyaf, close to the Lebanese border in the Syrian province of Hama. Rockets fired from Lebanese airspace hit a scientific studies and research center and caused two deaths, three wounded and material damage.
Israel considers the center a potential site for Iran to transform into a precision missile and weapons production center to support Hezbollah’s activities. The Syrian authorities blamed Israel for the attack, but the Israeli authorities, in line with their established practice, declined to comment.
This attack differs from previous ones. In the past, Israel used to carry out retaliatory attacks after rocket fire on Israeli territory, or attacked convoys carrying weapons and ammunition to Hezbollah or facilities where such weapons and ammunition were stored. The airstrike was not directed at a Hezbollah-connected target. It looks more like a warning to the major players, the US, Russia and Iran, than a punishing act against Syria. Recently, the US turned a blind eye to Iran’s settling in an area 10 km from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Russia’s attitude was not different when the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited the Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Aug. 24, to convey Israel’s worry about the growing Iranian presence in Syria. The latter’s only response was: “Iran is an important ally of Russia in the region.” Then, Israel carried out this attack probably to send the message that it will not stay idle if its vital interests are threatened.
Syria’s reaction to the attack was also different from the earlier occasions. In some cases in the past, Syria did not even react at all to the Israeli attacks since it considered them not as an act directed to it but to Hezbollah, while this time the Syrian army immediately issued a stern statement, which warned Israel of “serious consequences of such hostile acts against the security and stability in the region.”
The attack came a few days ahead of the biggest Israeli military maneuvers in 20 years. It is designed to test the Israeli army’s capabilities but also to intimidate Hezbollah and Iranian forces operating in Syria.
At the early stages of the Syrian crisis, Israeli decision-makers thought that the most likely political force that could emerge after Bashar Assad’s fall was the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which was a bigger threat. Therefore they refrained from getting directly involved in the infighting. This policy lasted several years until it has become clear that, first Assad is not falling soon; second, the areas liberated from Daesh could fall under the control of Iran. Israel could hardly be expected to acquiesce to Iran’s growing presence on its doorstep.
The airstrike on a potential Iranian missile production site for Hezbollah was understandable, but it risks upsetting a delicate balance of allies.
There are other major stakeholders opposing Iran’s growing role in Syria: Washington is also opposed to handing over to Iran the areas liberated from Daesh. But unlike the US, Israel may not oppose these areas’ falling under Assad’s control.
Russia is cooperating with Iran in the fight against Daesh, but unlike the US, it will be prepared to hand over the liberated areas to the Syrian government, which will become a handcuffed client of Russia’s. Unlike Israel, it may not oppose if parts of the liberated areas fall into Iran’s control.
Turkey’s highest priority in the Syrian crisis has now become to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing a contiguous Kurdish belt in the north of the country. Fighting Daesh is also important but it comes after fighting the Kurds. Turkey would not like to see Iranian influence extend to Syria but, because of the common cause of fighting the Kurds, it is not easy to tell how far Turkey would go in its opposition to Iran’s establishing its control in parts of Syria. On the other hand, there are signs that Turkey will soften its attitude toward the Syrian regime. The Kurdish issue may be one of the reasons for this realistic approach. Therefore Turkey would prefer that the liberated areas fall into the control of the Syrian regime rather than Iran.
Saudi Arabia will probably be one of the strongest supporters of the idea of not letting Iran gain an upper hand in Syria. Therefore, it may support Israel’s position as far as the Iranian chapter is concerned.
This complicated and intertwined background may tempt Israel into taking calculated risks and attack various targets in Syria, but the most important players in the field are Russia and Iran, and their positions are far from being convergent with that of Israel. Furthermore, the Assad regime has regained self-confidence and is currently enjoying abundant Russian support. Therefore, Israel may need to think twice before engaging in a military operation unless its vital interests are exposed to risks.