(November 20, 2017 / JNS) With one of the bloodiest civil wars in modern history winding down, world powers have been discussing the future of Syria.
This month, the U.S., Russia and Jordan issued a new cease-fire deal that seeks to create “de-escalation” zones in southwest Syria that would bar foreign forces—namely Iran, the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias—from operating there.
But Israel, which sees Iran as its top security threat, has expressed apprehension that the cease-fire does not create a large enough buffer zone that is free from Iranian forces near the Israeli-Syrian border. Additionally, Israeli officials fear that the deal heavily favors Russia and Iran, with the U.S. uninterested in becoming involved in Syria.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel will not be bound by the deal.
“I have clarified to our friends in Washington and our friends in Moscow that we will operate in Syria, including southern Syria, in accordance with our understanding and in accordance with our security needs,” Netanyahu recently said.
Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert on Russia’s Mideast policy and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told JNS.org that the cease-fire “comes across as giving in to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s interests in Syria, which will never bring real peace, no real political settlement.”
Cease-fire agreements “seldom are expressed in a total cessation of hostilities due to the multitude and diversity of warring parties in the [Syrian] theater,” said Assaf Orion, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, explaining that Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and their allies “continue their ‘attacks on terrorists’ regardless of cease-fires, and the anti-ISIS coalition fights on.”
“The current U.S. policy on Syria focuses on ISIS only, with little energy left for other parts of the problem,” Orion, the former head of the Strategic Division in the Planning Directorate of the IDF General Staff, told JNS.org.
Russia, he said, views Iran “as a main pillar of its posture in Syria, and actually supports Iran’s entrenchment there, despite theoretical divergence of interests with the Islamic Republic.”
“This puts Israel at odds with Russia…and leaves it to seek possible regional, local and global partners, with whom to combine its national security efforts against the growing Iranian presence in Syria, preparing for all levels of friction with both Iran and its proxies,” Orion said.
During the last few months, Netanyahu has intensively lobbied Russia and the Trump administration to create of a secure buffer zone between Israel and Syria, in order to keep Iranian forces and Hezbollah away from the Jewish state.
Israel had reportedly demanded a buffer zone in Syria of 37-50 miles from the countries’ border in the Golan Heights. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently said that Iran’s presence in Syria is “legitimate,” according to the Interfax News Agency.
Further, a map included in the U.S.-Russia-Jordan cease-fire shows that Iranian-backed militias could be deployed within several miles of the Israeli border, The Associated Press reported.
Iran’s plans for Syria
According to Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, the Islamic Republic’s long-term plans for Syria include keeping Assad in power, making him more dependent on Tehran and maintaining a supply route to Lebanon for Hezbollah.
“Iran also seeks to roll the instability that is in Syria right up to Israel’s borders, and be able to threaten the Jewish state on multiple fronts. Iranian security planners see the region’s wars as a way to keep their homeland safe,” Taleblu told JNS.org.
A recent BBC report revealed satellite images indicating that Iran is building a military base at a site used by the Syrian Army near Damascus, which is roughly 30 miles from Israel.
Ben Taleblu said that constructing military bases in Syria could enable Iran to “better prosecute the plethora of proxy wars it is fueling in the region.”
Yet Ben Taleblu added that “establishing such facilities in Syria would only present the very capable IDF with targets. And to date, Iran’s regional footprint has reflected more of a penchant for asymmetric warfare and secrecy, something likely rooted in its cognizance of escalation dynamics and its own conventional military weakness.”
“That’s why Iran’s approach has been to co-opt causes, groups and states, which already have their own set of capabilities which can be marshaled in the service of Iran’s revolutionary cause,” he said.
Shortly after the recent cease-fire announcement, officials from the U.S. National Security Council flew to Israel to purportedly discuss Iran’s alleged military base near the Israeli border.
“The U.S. remains committed to Israel, and Putin for one knows he can never replace the U.S. when it comes to Israel, but this [cease-fire] agreement raises concerns for Israel’s security,” Borshchevskaya said. “Perhaps some believe that Russia can restrain Iran, but that’s highly unlikely to happen.”
‘Common interests’ for Iran and Russia
While Israel and Russia do enjoy cordial relations, with Netanyahu traveling several times to Moscow in recent years to discuss mechanisms for avoiding direct conflict over their competing interests in Syria, Borshchevskaya said the Russians’ relationship with the Jewish state “was always based on pragmatism, and frankly it’s also not an equal relationship—Putin has the upper hand in the relationship and knows it.”
She said, “Bilateral relations have grown on a number of fronts of the years: over a million Russian speakers immigrated to Israel and make a sizable portion of Israel’s population, there’s growing bilateral trade and visa-free travel. Russia and Israel continue to talk on the military side to avoid clashes, they have good communication there. But Russia’s policies in the region are increasingly problematic for Israel, and while neither side would want a bilateral crisis, it’s unclear how these problems will resolve and what that would mean for Israel, especially in the context of U.S. retreat from the region.”
As such, Borshchevskaya does not envision a Russian-Iranian schism in the near future.
“At the moment, Moscow and Tehran have a common enemy—the U.S., and more broadly the West—and thus they are able to put their differences aside,” she said. “I certainly don’t foresee a split between Russia and Iran anytime soon. Their common interests supersede their concerns and whatever tactical disagreements they have.”
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