As the Syrian war draws to a close, the real question is what Israel and Iran do now

Trump has made it very clear he wants out of Syria. But making the withdrawal of Iranian troops a prerequisite for a peace deal in Syria and saying they have to use their 'leverage' over Russia ties their forces, and the Kurdish-militias they back, in Syria for the long run

Bel Trew
Friday 24 August 2018 16:49
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IDF turns away Syrian refugees at border

It was just an offhand comment from an Israeli dad-of-two, who lives a kilometre from the border with Syria. But, in hindsight, was one of the more illuminating comments on the region’s long and troublesome summer.

The date was 10 May. Iranian forces in Syria had just lobbed 20 missiles at Israeli army positions in the disputed Golan Heights.

Though bizarrely inaccurate (only four made it over the border), it was a dramatic attack on Israeli soil. It prompted Israel’s biggest strike in Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur war: Israeli aircraft pummelled 70 Iranian military positions including the base, south of Damascus, where the missiles were allegedly fired from.

Kfir, the Israeli father, said his family hadn’t slept all night. Not because sirens from Israel’s powerful Iron Dome defence system were blaring – but precisely because he couldn’t hear them.

“We didn’t know what was incoming or outgoing fire, so we went to the shelter and just stayed there… this is not normal for us to live like this. For over 40 years this has been the quietest border in Israel,” he said.

For those few days it felt like a war between Israel, Iran and its many proxies was inevitable.

But despite all bark and bluster, both sides backed down… for now.

Israeli analysts argued that the next missile war on Israel would be on a scale never seen before.

“The army knows that Iron Dome cannot provide an effective defence against hundreds of missiles launched in a single day,” David Rosenberg wrote in Haaretz.

For families like Kfir’s, who are used to a nearby contested but largely sleepy border, it would have been disastrous. They couldn’t even hear the sirens to hide.

The spectre of war between Israel and Iran and the tricky problem of the Iranian presence in Syria was raised again this week during a visit by John Bolton, President Trump’s national security advisor to Jerusalem.

Israel believes since Iran first intervened to back President Assad in 2013 it has been steadily building a military infrastructure in Syria from which to attack Israel.

According to the Israelis there are an estimated 80,000 Iranian combatants in Syria, including a core cadre of 3,000 revolutionary guards as well as thousands of Hezbollah fighters and other militiamen.

Bolton made the withdrawal of these forces from Syria a “prerequisite” for a peace deal with the Syrian regime, now that it is generally assumed that the rebels are not going to win.

He said that even Moscow, Iran’s top ally in Syria, wants “the complete return of both the regular and irregular Iranian forces” to Iran. But added that Russian President Putin had apparently admitted “I can’t do it myself”.

An Israeli journalist al-Hayom interjected in the press conference: “If Russian can’t pull the Iranians out from Syria, and the US can’t do it, then the meaning is Israel will have to handle it alone.” The result may be war, he added.

Bolton admitted the situation was tricky but failed to properly answer. A day later he met with his Russian counterparts in Geneva but still offered no plan of how to fix the Iranian issue.

While it seems that no one wants war, everyone is backed into a corner in this messy conflict.

Iran has invested a massive amount of blood and money to keep Assad in power and to retain its infrastructure in Syria. It is unlikely to just pack up and leave, even if it is facing massive domestic pressure back home.

For the Iranian regime, military presence in Syria provides a vital lifeline corridor to its proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon. It is also an important defence measure, Holly Dagres, an expert on Iran, argues.

“If the United States or Israel attacked Iran, the Iranian military and its proxies could easily retaliate from southern Syria. Maintaining a presence in Damascus is also integral for having easy access to Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon,” she said.

Iran would need major incentives from Russia before they would even consider leaving Syria, which are unlikely to be offered.

Moscow is in a tricky situation. After seven years of war, the Syrian army is in tatters. Russia, which isn’t doing too well economically itself, cannot prop up the Assad regime on its own. Russia has also invested heavily in Assad. It admitted this week to having deployed some 63,000 troops and nearly 90 per cent of its combat planes in the Syrian conflict. But even with those massive numbers, without Iran and its proxies, Russia wouldn’t cope.

President Trump has made it very clear he wants out of Syria and the Middle East in general. But making the withdrawal of Iranian troops a prerequisite for a peace deal in Syria and saying they have to use their “leverage” over Russia ties their forces, and the Kurdish-militias they back, in Syria for the long run.

For Israel there have been some small wins. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu successfully lobbied Russia not to supply Syria with advanced S300 anti-aircraft system that could hinder future sorties. Earlier this month Moscow convinced the Iranian forces in Syria to withdraw to at least 85km from the Israeli border.

But that is still within striking distance of Israel. And Iran’s presence in Syria still provides a channel of weapons to, arguably, Israel’s most existential threat: Hezbollah.

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