Israel and the war in Syria

T
here is fundamental point which needs to be studied carefully: the war in Syria - after the entry of the Russian Federation into the region – implies a connection between Russia and Iran that is supremely dangerous for Israel. In fact, many of the Russian air raids on the Syrian soil come from the Iranian base of Hamadan, 175 miles south of Tehran - the historical tomb, inter alia, of Esther and Mordechai, the traditional pilgrimage of Iranian Jews.

If Russia really wants to avoid traditional Western powers managing again the equilibriums of the Great Middle East, it must favour the strengthening of a "Shiite crescent" stretching from Iran to the Alawite region in Syria up to the Southern Lebanon of the "Party of God", namely Hezbollah.

However, if Russia leaves the whole work in the hands of Iranians and their allies, it must rely on a strong Israel enabling it to stay in the game throughout the Syrian territory.

Moreover, Putin wants to block every Western temptation to conduct other "Arab Springs" in the Middle East or riots in the streets that, as the Russian leader knows all too well, would sooner or later be used against his regime within the Russian Federation.

Putin has blocked any possibility of "indirect strategy" on the part of Westerners - and this is already one of his significant victories.

In fact, with Crimea’s annexation on March 18, 2014 and the counter-revolution in Ukraine, Putin has stabilized Russia's power projection from the South, so as to cover its main networks for the distribution of oil and gas to the West and the Mediterranean.

Russia’s conquest of Syria – hence of the whole Greater Middle East - is the necessary "second circle" of this new security policy.

Russia focuses on countries, while Westerners, and especially Americans, focus on ethnic groups, religious groups and tribal areas.

And this is also a strength for Russia.

This is the reason why the continuous fragmentation of the clash fronts has not led to US hegemony, but to the now definitive US defeat in the Middle East.

Therefore Russia is certainly interested in the new expansion of Iran's economy and geostrategic influence, but Iran still wants Bashar al-Assad as Syria’s leader.

The Russian Federation, however, still wants Assad to stay in power because this allows the maximum security and safety of its maritime bases in the Syrian Mediterranean.

Conversely Iran intends to keep Assad and the Shiite regime in power because they enable it to have the maximum strategic continuity with Lebanese Hezbollah.

Obviously Israel has no interest in entering the Syrian conflict.

The presence of the Jewish State would catalyze an alliance between Sunnis and Shiites against Jerusalem and would not play into the hands of Russia or Israel itself.

Moreover Israel has provided humanitarian and medical aid to the Syrian wounded people who reached the borders of the Golan Heights and has authorized the passage of humanitarian convoys across its borders.

However, the Israeli armed forces have hit individual targets within the Syrian territory during the conflict and the Jewish State’s military planning assumes that, even with the Russian support, there can never be strategic continuity between Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Lebanese Shiites’ “Party of God”.

Russia has so far shown interest in the protection of Israeli borders for a number of important reasons.

Firstly, the Jewish State is home to over a million Russian citizens of Jewish religion.

In the Russian orthodox and nationalistic culture Slavophilia applies also to Russian Jews.

Furthermore the economic link between Russia and Israel is of primary interest, also and especially for Russians.

Currently the economic relations between Russia and Israel are worth approximately 4 billion US dollars - a much higher amount than trade between Russia and Egypt.

And this trade regards almost always high-tech goods.

Moreover, currently Putin could be the best broker for serious and final negotiations between Israel and Palestine.

Now Obama's America does no longer want to deal directly with the Middle East and in the United States there is an increasingly tense climate towards Israel, its internal political lobby and its strategic interest in the region, which does not coincide with the US policy of uncontested support for the Gulf monarchies.

Americans have entrusted the Sunnis with the protection of their interest in the Middle East - a risky and dangerous move.

Also in this case, the US decision-making mechanisms have been ambiguous.

While, on the one hand, March 2016 saw the signing of a US-Israel military agreement worth 38 billion US dollars over ten years, with some Israeli political concessions to the Palestinians, on the other hand, never as during Obama’s era there has been steady conflict between Washington and Jerusalem.

Conversely Putin and Netanyahu have reached an agreement for the mutual exchange of strategic information during the war in Syria, which is working well and could be the first step for a stable political-military exchange between the two countries.

Do the Americans want so? And how could they counteract the growth of Russia as Israel’s broker in the Arab and Islamic world?

Moreover, if Israel wants to count in a future redesign of Syria, it is only with Russia that it shall negotiate, considering that Westerners still fiddle with “moderate” jihadists and, although not counting at all on the ground, they want the regionalization of a future pacified Syria.

Furthermore, without the Western allies present in the Syrian region, Israel cannot avoid dealing with the only credible non-Islamic power, namely Russia.

Moreover, if we see how the crisis points of the Israeli deployment of forces have changed, we realize that the war in Syria has made the Lebanon very dangerous and the Gaza Strip even more unstable, but it has completely changed the military and political structure of the Golan Heights.

For over 40 years, the Golan Heights - conquered by the Syrians during the 1967 War - have been the quietest Israeli border.

UNDOF, the UN peacekeeping force in the region, collaborates in stabilizing the border, along with Israeli and Syrian forces located in the rear.

However, the Druze and the Israelis living in the Golan Heights are over 40,000.

The front between Israel and Syria is very dynamic and it has already witnessed Daesh/Isis operations and attacks on the Golan Heights areas closer to Jordan.

Assad has no interest in awakening Israel’s lion; the jihadists do not want to pay the price of very harsh reactions by the Israeli forces and in no way Israel wants to be involved in the Shiite-Sunni conflict.

There are two real strategic dangers: a Shiite or Sunni action going deep only into the Golan Heights or a correlation of forces between the front of the Golan Heights, the Southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

In fact, before the outbreak of war in Syria, the strategic debate among the Israeli decision-makers was simple: it would be good for Israel if Sunnis defeated Assad's forces, which would break the link between the Syrian regime’s Alawites and Iran.

Or would the Sunnis build a strategic corridor from Turkey to the Golan Heights, with the support of Qatar and Saudi Arabia?

A prospect which would bring Daesh or the various jihadist “fronts” on Israel's borders.

Better "the devil we already know" or a new form of the same dangerous presence?

Moreover, Assad, who is a shrewd man, has never directly attacked the Israeli forces on the Golan Heights, for fear of the predictable and powerful response actions. However he has smuggled Iranian arms to Hezbollah by using his Southern border with Israel.

For the time being the Jewish State’s rejection to follow one of two options, so as to manage a favourable equilibrium with the Russian winner, has proved to be the right choice.

Hence it must avoid exciting and rousing both the Turks and the Russians in the region, even though - pending the Syrian war – Israel has decided to support some Sunni groups on its Syrian border to prevent the stabilization of Hezbollah positions immediately behind its own defence lines.

Sunni groups that, however, are supported by Saudi Arabia and not by Turkey, always in front of the Golan Heights.

As from January 2015 to date, the Israeli attacks have always been tough and accurate and targeted to the Iranian officials and the leaders of the Lebanese "Party of God" operating on the Golan border.

The Lebanese Shiites’ activities, however, have become more difficult since Russia supplied Syria with its advanced radar and anti-aircraft missiles S-400.

In fact, at that juncture, the agreement between Israel and Russia was immediate, thus showing the relevance that the Jewish State has for Russia.

Iran could not supply Hezbollah with advanced weapons and, if it had done so, Israel would have been entitled to immediately respond militarily in Syria.

Always referring to the debate among the Israeli strategic decision-makers, there are many signs that Israel is allegedly changing its assessment of the clashes in Syria.

If the conflict continues - as everything currently make us predict - the Syrian forces will be a mere shadow of what they were, while the Lebanese "Party of God" must strongly support its ally, Assad, thus reducing its pressure on Israeli targets.

Therefore, for many Israeli analysts, a war definitely exhausting all the Jewish State’s Northern enemies is the optimal strategic equation.

On the other hand, there is the danger that, with a view to preventing the victory of Bashar al-Assad’s Alawites, supported by Russia, Israel may have a sort of US-style "conditioned reflex", thus starting to support - against Assad - Iran and Hezb'ollah, the famous Sunni "rebels" so dear to the Western strategic foolishness.

The latter, after having received support, would turn immediately against those who have protected them.

Does the story of Daesh/Isis foundation teach us nothing?

A rational alternative for the Jewish State would be to support the Kurds or, in a wider perspective, the splitting up of the Syrian State, namely its "cantonization".

Nevertheless we can also think of the great geopolitical opportunities that the Russian intervention opens up for Israel.

For Russia, rescuing Assad means marginalizing the United States in the whole Middle East and becoming a global strategic actor.

Furthermore, the secondary objective of this Russian operation is to maintain the key ally in the region, namely Assad, but above all to eliminate any possibility of radical Islamization of the Sunni areas and, hence, prevent Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia - three powers close to the United States - from having a marked presence in Syria.

Therefore Russia may want three different things - and we do not know yet what Russia will choose.

A very small and united Syria - an Alawistan to protect the Russian military zones on the Mediterranean - a less little Syria with Assad reigning over Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Damascus or, finally, a greater Syria without Assad.

For Israel, the alternatives could be those of silently supporting the Russian actions in Syria and simultaneously resume relations between the Jewish State and some Sunni countries, so as to make them oppose Iran’s hegemonic expansion between Iran and Southern Lebanon.

Or Israel could negotiate directly with Russia a deployment of forces in Syria which would substantially allow to defuse and avert the Iranian-Shiite danger in the Golan Heights.

But what will be the bargaining chip with Russia and the other regional players, considering that the United States are no longer present in that region?

Giancarlo Elia Valori

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa

Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York.

He currently chairs "La Centrale Finanziaria Generale Spa", he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group and member of the Ayan-Holding Board.

In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d'Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: "A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title of "Honorable" of the Académie des Sciences de l'Institut de France

 

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