One of the most important things to have happened in the Syrian war over the last few months is that the veil of Israel’s neutrality in the war has been thrown off.
This veil was always very thin. It is no secret in the Middle East that the Syrian conflict has been all about breaking the ‘Axis of Resistance’ of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah by attacking Syria, which was supposed to be its weakest link.
The ‘Axis of Resistance’ of course gets its name because of its ‘resistance’ to Israel. It is not surprising therefore that Israel is implacably hostile to it, and has long sought to break it up. Since the ‘Axis of Resistance’ – and the extension of Iranian power that comes with it – is also seen as a threat by the conservative Arab Gulf States and by the US, that explains the de facto alliance between them and Israel which has been the main driver of the Syrian war.
Our contributor Afra’a Dagher – who is Syrian and who writes from Syria – has written about all this extensively. Israeli leaders have also spoken about all it with refreshing directness and frankness which one never gets from the leaders of the West. Consider for example the public admission in January 2016 of Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon that he would rather see the victory of ISIS in Syria than the perpetuation of Iranian influence there.
It is clear by now however that this plan has badly miscarried.
Following the intervention of Russia in 2015 it became increasingly clear that the Syrian government was going to survive. Following the liberation of eastern Aleppo last December it also became clear that the Syrian government was likely to regain control of the populous regions of ‘useful Syria’ on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Following the Russian-Turkish-Iranian ceasefire plan agreed in May the Syrian government’s control of ‘useful Syria’ has been consolidated. Following the offensives of the Syrian army in eastern Syria it is becoming clear that the plan to hive off eastern Syria in order to create a Sunni client state there has also failed. The US has now publicly admitted as much.
All of this from an Israeli point of view is serious enough. However of even greater concern must be that the result of the Syrian war is leaving Israel’s strategic position much weaker than it was before the war started. To see why consider the following four facts:
(1) The Syrian army is now a far more formidable force than it was before the war
The Syrian army before 2011 was like most Arab armies inefficient and shot through with corruption. Six years of war have however cut out the dead and rotten wood, improving discipline and morale, and giving the army’s commanders battlefield experience exceeding anything the Israeli army now has. It has also massively improved the Syrian army’s command and control systems.
The blisteringly fast parallel advance of three large Syrian military columns across the desert of central and eastern Syria towards Deir Ezzor which is currently underway speaks of the very highest quality of staff work. This is not something the Syrian army was capable of before the war.
Quite probably much of this staff work – perhaps all of it – is being done for the Syrian army by the Russians, who have historically excelled at staff work. However even if Syrian commanders involved in the operation are purely beneficiaries of staff work being done for them by the Russians, they will be experiencing the effect of first class staff work for the first time and will be learning vital lessons from it.
There are also reports of the wholesale retraining of Syrian officers and soldiers by Russian advisers and of the Syrians being supplied by Russia with sophisticated weapons such as T90 tanks, BTR82 armoured vehicles, Igla man portable surface to air missiles (MANPADS) and by Iran with sophisticated Iranian drones.
The Syrian army has also gained for the first time in its history experience of close air support for ground troops engaged in both offensive and defensive operations, with the Syrians learning all about how to train and position forward air controllers and how to maintain communications during ground fighting between ground forces and air forces.
(2) President Assad’s prestige and authority is being increased
The Syrian government has been the most consistent opponent of Israel amongst the governments of the Arab states since at least the 1960s. Whereas Egypt and Jordan have concluded peace treaties with Israel, Syria has consistently refused to do so.
President Bashar Al-Assad inherited this policy from his father, former Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. Until the outbreak of the Syrian war he was however widely seen as a weak leader, too intellectual and too westernised to replace his father in leading Syria effectively.
In the event President Assad rose to the challenge of the war. His success in holding Syria together through the extraordinary stresses of the war, the leadership he has provided to his people, to his government and to his army, and his skilful diplomacy, which has won him the vital backing of Russia, will inevitably once the war is over increase his prestige, not just within Syria but in the Arab world as a whole. He will be seen as the man who at the risk of his own life stayed at his post even as his official residence was almost entirely surrounded by Jihadi fighters, and who stood up to the US, Israel, the Gulf Arab States, NATO, Turkey, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and against all the odds won.
The war has transformed President Assad – amongst Arab leaders Israel’s most implacable enemy – into a potentially towering figure, arguably the most imposing the Arab world has had since the death of Gamal Nasser. Moreover unlike tyrannical and blustering figures like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Al-Assad – dignified, educated and articulate in both Arabic and English – looks like someone Arabs can identify with, and who like Nasser the outside world can take seriously.
The Israelis must be worried as to what use President Assad will put his newly found authority and prestige when the Syrian war is over and his hands are finally freed. Will he become a beacon of opposition to them as Nasser once was? The possibility is there.
(3) The Syrian-Iranian alliance has been massively strengthened
In my opinion the ultimate origin of the Syrian war is the 2006 conflict in Lebanon when the Lebanese Shiite resistance group Hezbollah successfully held off the assault of the Israeli army. This event spread alarm not just in Israel but in the US and amongst the Gulf Arab States about the powerful Iranian led ‘Axis of Resistance’ which was in the process of forming. As discussed above, the Syrian war was essentially launched to break it.
I will now state my view that this pre-2011 fear about the emergence of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ – often conflated with the somewhat different concept of the so-called ‘Shia Crescent’ – was overdone. Before 2011 Hezbollah was a purely Lebanese movement, which posed no threat to the existence of Israel, whilst Syria, though Israel’s enemy and allied to both Hezbollah and Iran, posed no threat to Israel either. As for Iran, though it did have a powerful military, it was also far away and was then and – in my opinion still is now – overwhelmingly focused on its own security.
As for the idea of some sort of territorially contiguous ‘Shia Crescent‘ forming a ‘land-bridge’ linking Iran with Hezbollah across Syria and Iraq, this was a concept which before 2011 had no reality. Certainly no such ‘land-bridge’ could have existed in 2006 when Hezbollah defeated Israel’s assault in Lebanon because Iraq at that time was under US occupation following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, ensuring that the US would intercept whatever supplies Iran might have tried to send to Hezbollah through there.
The effect of the Syrian war is however that it has actually brought all the elements of the ‘Axis of Resistance’ together and is adding Iraq to them, making the concept of a ‘land-bridge’ from Iran to Hezbollah across Syria and Iraq finally into a potential reality.
Iranian influence has markedly increased in Syria as a result of the war. Iranian troops are now present in Syria where before 2011 there were none. There are also now large numbers of Iranian commanded Shia militia from Iraq there. Hezbollah is now also fighting alongside the Syrian army there. Syria and Iraq have discovered a commonality of interest in fighting ISIS and other Jihadi movements which they never had before, and are now de facto allies. Both are allies of Iran.
With the coordinated arrival of Syrian and Iraqi troops at their common border for the first time in years, the much feared and talked about ‘land-bridge’ linking Iran with Hezbollah across Iraq and Syria is now finally close to becoming a reality. Not only is it now theoretically possible to send supplies by road from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but there is now for the first time a real possibility of it actually happening.
(4) Israel is losing its strategic dominance in the region because of the coming of Russia
If the arrival of the Russians in Syria in 2015 was the single event which decisively turned the tide of the war in Syria, Russia’s recent decision to set up a huge network of bases in Syria – a fully fledged naval base in Tartus, a permanent air base in Khmeimim, and a huge supporting complex of advanced surface to air missiles, electronic warfare systems, radars, and listening stations – means that Israel’s hitherto unchallenged strategic dominance in this region is being lost.
To be clear, the Russian presence in Syria is not directed at Israel, and the Russians have been at pains to make clear that they are not Israel’s enemy. However the presence of the sophisticated military of a nuclear superpower so close to Israel’s territory cannot but fill the Israelis with foreboding since over time, as the situation in Syria stabilises, it will inevitably come to constrain Israel’s actions.
There is a separate ‘de-confliction’ hotline in existence between the militaries of Israel and Russia. Since it is hardly plausible that Israel will be prepared to send its aircraft to places where the mighty US air force refuses to go, the Israelis must dread the day when the Russians decide to do the same to them, forcing them like the US to limit their flights in Syrian airspace.
That day may not be so far off.
The Russians during the Syrian war have shown that they will act strongly if either the US or Israel take military action which directly threatens the Syrian government, or which interferes with the offensive operations of the Syrian army.
Thus the Russians reacted sharply last October when the US seemed to be considering strikes on Syrian forces to break the siege of Jihadi controlled eastern Aleppo and following a US air attack on Syrian troops defending Deir Ezzor, and more recently they also reacted sharply when the US shot down a Syrian SU-22 fighter during the ongoing Syrian army offensive in northern Syria against ISIS. They also reacted sharply when Israel recently bombed Syria’s vital Tiyas air base, calling in the Israeli ambassador to protest an action which was clearly intended to obstruct the Syrian army’s eastern campaign against ISIS.
The Russians have however shown far greater forbearance in responding to attacks that they consider pinpricks ie. occasional US or Israeli strikes on Syrian troops or facilities which pose no direct threat to the Syrian government, and which do not affect the conduct of Syrian army operations which the Russians consider important. The muted Russian response to the recent US shooting down of an Iranian drone was merely one example of this.
However once the situation in Syria stabilises and the country is at peace the Russians are unlikely to go on showing the same forbearance. Israeli attacks on Syria will then be attacks on Russia’s most important friend and ally in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean, a country which will be hosting Russia’s biggest network of bases outside former Soviet territory, and one which will also be hosting tens of thousands of Russian visitors, not just military personnel manning the bases but civilian visitors and tourists visiting a friendly country which will no longer be a war zone.
In light of this there has to be an overwhelming likelihood that the Russians will at some point tell the Israelis that further attacks on Syria will no longer be tolerated, and must stop.
Beyond this there is there is the change in the regional balance caused by the mere presence of the Russian bases in Syria.
Already there are reports in the Israeli media of Israeli concern that Russian radars in Syria already possess the ability to track the flight of every Israeli aircraft taking off from every air base in Israel. It is highly likely Russian listening stations in Syria and in Russia monitoring signals that might affect the operation of Russia’s Syrian bases will before long start listening to Israeli signals traffic even if they are not doing so already. Meanwhile the electronic warfare systems the Russians have already deployed to Syria – notably the Krasukha-S4 – are probably already capable of jamming Israeli signals traffic and the operation of some Israeli weapons systems.
The Israelis must also worry about what might happen if the Russians one day start passing on some of the information their intelligence gathering systems in Syria are providing them to the Syrians. After all it is standard practice for a country operating bases in another country to share intelligence it obtains through use of these bases with the host country. The Syrians might in that case obtain intelligence about Israel of a quality they have never had before.
Regardless of that, with the Russians already in Syria and listening in to Israel’s signals traffic the possibility of Israel mounting a surprise attack on Syria like the one it carried off so spectacularly in 1967 has gone, probably forever.
It is not difficult therefore to see why Israel should be so concerned about recent developments in Syria. A war which was at least in part intended to make Israel’s position stronger is ending up by making it much weaker.
It is these concerns which undoubtedly lie behind Israel’s most recent actions.
Despite Israeli denials the recent Israeli bombing raids on Syrian military positions in the Golan Heights are clearly intended to support an Al-Qaeda offensive against Syrian troops there. The plan appears to be to create an Al-Qaeda controlled buffer zone between Israel and the Syrian military in the Golan Heights, the one area where Syria and Israel territorially adjoin each other, and where their militaries directly confront each other.
The Israelis after all tried to do the same thing when they set up the so-called ‘South Lebanese Army” in southern Lebanon to control a buffer zone there after their invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
If that is the Israeli plan – and everything suggests that it is – then the Lebanese experience ought to serve as a warning.
Al-Qaeda led Jihadi fighters are scarcely reliable allies for Israel, and in trying to manipulate them Israel is holding a scorpion by the tail.
By meddling in the Golan Heights Israel risks becoming bogged down in a prolonged war there, allied to Jihadi fighters who are its sworn enemy. It is easy to see how this could turn out disastrously, with Israel over time becoming bogged down in a war in the Golan Heights similar to the war it fought and lost in southern Lebanon, which gave rise to Hezbollah.
Rather than engage in these dangerous games in Syria Israel would be far better advised to start looking at serious options to make peace, both with Syria and with the Palestinians. Given that both of the two superpowers currently engaged in the Middle East – the US and Russia – are at present friendly towards Israel, there is no better time to do so than now. Delaying doing it risks leaving Israel in a much weaker position than the one it is in now, as the situation in the Middle East following the end of the Syrian war starts to turn against it.
Unfortunately there is no sign that the present Israeli leadership – made complacent by long years of having things always go its way – has any thought of doing this.