Key words: Syria, Russia, Israel, Iran, Turkey, Hezbollah, ISIS, al-Qaeda.
By Elijah J. Magnier– @ejmalrai
Israel Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu travelled to the Russian resort of Sochito meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin, considered to be the “owner of the house” in Syria, in a failed attempt to extract from the Kremlin what could not be obtained from Washington, on its borders with Syria.
As it is well known in every war, the winner imposes the conditions on the loser: the Israeli Prime Minister backed a losing horse and believed – like many world leaders – that Bashar al-Assad would fall in 2012, a few months after the war imposed on Syria. Netanyahu was confident that the “axis of the resistance” (Iran – Syria – Hezbollah) would lose the war and that Damascus would fall under the control of Takfiri-extremists. In fact Israel has no alliance with Sunni jihadists, it’s just because these have declared a sectarian war on the Shia in general and Hezbollah in particular, and therefore the vital supply line between Tehran-Damascus-Beirut was supposed to be – happily- interrupted.
The failure of the extremist project in the Middle East – the “Islamic State” ISIS and al Qaeda under al-Nusra or Hay’atTahrir al Sham – increased the level of danger to Israel. The Israeli Air Force repetitively bombed the Syrian Army and offered logistic support to al-Qaeda in the south of Syria on several occasions with the hope these could prevail and form a buffer zone, preventing Hezbollah and Iran from immediate contact with the Israeli borders. Moreover, when Israel bombed Iranian warehouses at Damascus airport, some of these were designated for groups operating in the Golan area. Also, the Israeli Air Force killed a Hezbollah figure, Samir al-Kintar, in Damascus, in charge of recruitment in the Golan area.
The Israeli efforts increased the determination of Damascus and its ally Hezbollah-Iran to invest more efforts to overwhelm al-Qaeda in the south of Syria and defeat them. The secretary general of Hezbollah Sayed Hasan Nasrallah declared that the front with Israel starts from Naqoura (south of Lebanon) to the occupied Golan height (Syria) as one complete operational stage for his militants against Israel.
Is the Israeli fear and concern of the Hezbollah-Iran danger realistic? The Syrian President declared on many occasions his intention to recover the entire Syrian territory. Nevertheless, the reality on the ground may render this objective quite difficult to achieve in the near future:
1.In the north-east, the US forces have established 12 military bases in the Kurdish controlled area including two military airports. This indicates an intentionally long US presence in Syria: its departure is certainly not expected any time soon. The Kurds on the other hand are claiming an independent state or a Federation in that US-protected part of the country. This will trigger a long negotiation with Damascus so as to find a way of compromising, or common ground to prevent the partition of Syria
2.Turkey sustains forces in the north and occupies several cities to prevent a larger Turkish “Rojava state” (or Federation) on its borders from Efrin to al-Hasaka and to keep a stronghold in Syria, having recruited thousands of Syrian proxies. Turkey maintains forces in Iraq Ba’shiqa and has refused to pull out these forces despite two years of negotiation with Baghdad. Therefore, it won’t be an easy task for Assad to negotiate a withdrawal by Ankara.
3.The battle against ISIS is still going on: main cities like Deir al-Zour, al-Mayadeen, albu Kamal and Al-Qaem won’t be easy to liberate in a short time even if the fate of ISIS has been sealed and it should be defeated sometime next year on both sides of the borders (Syria and Iraq).
4.Al-Qaeda (Nusra or Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) is in full control of the northern city of Idlib, a city that is expected to become the fourth city to be included in the Russian-Turkish-Iranian de-confliction zone. The dislodging, merger or dissolution of al-Qaeda within the other Syrian rebel groups requires major effort from Turkey, which also means the increase of Turkish influence in Syria and the continuous presence of al-Qaeda, albeit under another form.
5.Assad and his allies work by priority: between 2013 until 2016, the priority was to disregard ISIS and attack al-Qaeda and the Syrian rebels who were receiving finance and military supply from the west and the countries of the region. They represented the biggest danger to Assad and the capital Damascus. Following the Russian intervention, the de-confliction agreement(s), the Qatar-Saudi Arabia (rebels and al-Qaeda suppliers) dispute, and the cessation of the CIA training program and arms supply to al-Qaeda and rebels, the priority turned towards ISIS, by then becoming orphaned and without regional or international support. Therefore, Assad’s priority is not Israel today even if it will be sometime in the future.
Indeed, the long war in Syria taught Assad to accept the destruction of the infrastructure and the loss of men for the cause of unity (today only partial) of the country and the defeat of the extremists ideologists (ISIS and al-Qaeda)-which he would not have accepted prior to 2011. Therefore, the Syrian President – supported by Iran and Hezbollah – formed a new group called “Hezbollah Syria” and other similarly ideologically motivated groups to fight Israel for the recovery of that occupied land: the Golan heights. Assad, like Hezbollah, has no plans to take the initiative to attack Israel because these have no claim on Israeli territory. Nevertheless, both Assad and Hezbollah have claims to recover occupied territories in both Lebanon and Syria and will probably opt for the armed struggle to reach their objectives.
Today Israel is aware Assad won’t give up on the Golan and that the unique and intensive military experiences he and his allies have acquired in over 6 years of war can and will create a read headache for Israel, forcing it to fight back and ultimately give up the Golan heights. The only objective Netanyahu is trying to reach with Putin is to secure a grip over the Golan- a reassurance the Kremlin can’t give. This is also why Israel rejected the de-confliction deal between Russia and the US in the south: it offers no guarantee for Israel to keep the Golan Heights, nor can Russia be part of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict.
Netanyahu’s visit to Sochi was unsuccessful: Russia won’t deliver the following demands:
1.Israel wants to end the Iranian presence on its borders: Moscow can’t accommodate Israel due to the Russian-Iranian strategic relationship and energy collaboration. Moreover, the Russian intervention in the Syrian war was decisive in the victory of Assad but would not have succeeded without the Iranian (and allies) ground troops to occupy the territory and fight the urban wars.
2.Convince Russia to cease the Iranian supply of weapons to Hezbollah: Impossible to achieve because Iran invested heavily in Syria to support Assad but also to keep the supply line with Hezbollah flowing. Moreover, Russia doesn’t intervene neither in the Israeli destruction of Hezbollah weapons nor in the Iranian supply of weapons.
3.Netanyahu discussed the coordination of Russian and Israeli Air Forces in the south of Syria: once the war is over (on the way), there will be no need for the Israeli Air Force to carry out its usual promenade in the sky over Syria.
Therefore, the victory of the “axis of the resistance” has created a negative balance a very worried Israel. It is true that in every city ISIS is defeated: the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and Iran takes it back, creating a serious worry for Tel Aviv.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu can’t wage open war against Hezbollah nor Syria for the following reasons:
– Because his internal front is unprepared for a war;
– Because the Syrian Hezbollah and similar groups have gathered, along with Hezbollah, important experiences during the war clearly manifested in the speed and effectiveness of these forces against al-Qaeda and ISIS;
– Because Hezbollah has obtained advanced weapons (they have used some and are still hiding others); and finally
– Because the war in the Middle East is coming to an end.
Israel should prepare itself to adapt and live with a new reality where the two superpowers are now at its borders, that the sky in Syria and Lebanon is no longer its exclusivity, and that it is the right moment to accept the new situation and powers on its borders: the “axis of the resistance” and with it Russia.