CAIRO – 12 February 2018: With the war apparently winding down, states are jostling for influence to ensure they address the needs of their respective countries and threats to national security.
Changing realities on the ground in Syria are threatening to introduce a new phase of the civil war; one which would open up a new front to the conflict and offer a new threat to the Syrian government’s stability. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is successfully regaining control of Syria, with the support of Russia and Iran, power dynamics are changing at the cost of Israel’s perceived security, and long-term peace in Syria.
The recent direct conflict between Israel and Iran has made apparent some major changes between the two sides, and threatens long-term stability in both Syria and the region as a whole. Iran and the Syrian government have shown a growing confidence against Israel, and in response, Israel has displayed a greater willingness to act. Israel’s desire to not get bogged down in the war on its north east border is being severely tested.
How has the conflict intensified in recent days?
Conflict between Israel and Iran, two long-standing adversaries, escalated sharply in recent days and threatens to introduce a new phase in the conflict.
On February 10, Israel identified and tracked an Iranian UAV which had reportedly violated Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. Footage later released by the Israeli military depicted the drone being destroyed by an Israeli attack helicopter.
In retaliation, Israel sent jets to across the Syrian border and conducted airstrikes targeting the T4 Airbase in Eastern Homs where the drone was supposedly controlled from. Syrian Surface-to-Air Missile Systems engaged the jets on their return, and under “substantial Syrian anti aircraft fire” – allegedly upwards of 20 missiles fired from a Syrian base – an Israeli F-16 was brought down after its two-man crew ejected.
After the downing of the fighter jet, Israel launched a “large-scale attack” which targeted 12 military sites in Syria, including three air defense batteries and four military positions. It is said that several of these sites where Iranian, while the majority were Syrian.
This was the largest Israeli attack in Syria since 1982, and coincidently, the first combat loss for the Israeli Air Force since the same year.
Israeli security forces examine the remains of an F-16 Israeli war plane near the village of Harduf, Israel Feb 10, 2018 – REUTERS
Iranian spokesman denied this provocation, yet—regardless of blame—Iran has learned a lot over the past few days. Iran was successful in baiting Israel into a reaction, which thus allowed Iran to assess how Israel interpreted the severity of the threat.
The Israeli Defense Forces distinguished the chain of events as “more than confrontation, but less than war,” and warned Iran and its allies against “playing with fire.” Hezbollah, Iran’s most influential satellite in the Levant, said in a threat to its adversary that the escalation of hostilities and developments show that “the old equalities have categorically ended.”
Putting the Israel’s role in the Syrian Civil War into context
Israel has adopted three distinct positions during the war in neighboring Syria: “Passive onlooker,” “good neighbor” and “active onlooker.” These positions have shifted in response to changing balances of power in the conflict, and represent the changing security threats facing the Israeli state. The two major threats to Israeli security in Syria are Islamic terrorism and Iran, with the latter being the foremost adversary to the Israeli state.
An Israeli flag flutters above the wreckage of a tank on a hill in the Golan Heights overlooking the border with Syria on October 18, 2017 – AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey
Israel’s main concern is border security, and thus Israel’s north eastern border. As the war continued in Syria, fighting began to stray closer to the 1974 armistice line, where Israel is determined to prevent Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Hezbollah from advancing and setting up shop.
As the war in Syria has dragged on and the situation has evolved, Israel is threatened less by Islamic jihadist groups such as ISIS and its affiliates, and more by Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups who may establish permanent bases on Israel's border as conflict slows down. Not only would Iranian advances towards this line open up a new hostile front on the Israeli-Syrian border, it would consolidate a Shiite belt stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean that would pose a far greater risk to stability in the region.
Israel has avoided any substantial interference in the conflict beyond its “good neighbor” policy thus far, as the international coalition, along with its domestic allies, focuses on destroying the military threat posed by ISIS. However the threat of Iranian expansion and entrenchment on its border is looking closer to reality. In response, Israel established three clear “red lines” that would necessitate a response if crossed: Israel will not allow for Iran to exploit the instability in Syria to transfer arms and advanced weaponry to Hezbollah; Israel will not allow the conflict to encroach on, or spill over its border; and finally, Israel will not allow radical groups to consolidate control.
Put simply, Israel will disrupt any Iranian attempt to consolidate a permanent presence in Syria. Iranian offensive military outposts or advanced weapon production facilities are considered a direct threat to national security, and can be shared with Hezbollah thus increasing the threat from the north.
Hezbollah fighters giving a guided tour near the Lebanese-Syrian border on July 26, 2017 raise a Lebanese flag showing pictures of soldiers killed fighting jihadists – AFP
In order to prevent a new front to the war opening up on the Syria’s southern border with Israel, a Russian-backed “de-escalation zone” was established. This zone has helped keep Israel and its adversaries in Syria at a distance from each other—however, there have been signs of this breaking down. Notably, the latter half of 2017 saw conflict escalate between government forces and opposition fighters in the Quneitra province.
“Iran is busy making Syria a base for military entrenchment and wants to use Syria and Lebanon as fronts for the declared goal of the destruction of Israel. It is also building sites for producing precision guided missiles for this purpose in Syria and Lebanon, something that Israel cannot accept,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in August 2017.
Although Israel has avoided getting involved in the conflict, it has conducted dozens of clandestine airstrikes in Syria which have targeted Hezbollah weapon convoys and Iranian installations. While strategically important, these interventions have generally passed under the radar and have not received major media attention. Israel’s generally passive approach to the conflict has limited a Syrian response to these strikes; however, signs of a change became clear with the recent targeting of Israeli jets. With the Syrian government engaged in conflict on several fronts as President Assad attempts to regain control of the country, opening a new front on its southern border could severely dampen the government’s advances.
Hezbollah and Syrian flags flutter on a military vehicle in Western Qalamoun, Syria August 28, 2017 – REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki
As of yet, the disputed border in the Golan Heights has remained relatively calm. However, as forces hostile to Israel creep closer to the border and begin encroaching into Israeli territory, it is likely that conflict like we have seen in previous days will continue to escalate and may lead to a sustained direct conflict between Israel, Iran and its allied groups.
"Iran and Hezbollah know in advance that they are planning two fronts of war against Israel, and it is our right not to allow the suffocating tie to tighten around Israel," said Netanyahu.
Russia must meet the challenges of its newfound role, and act as an effective mediator
The significance of the conflict in recent days between Israel and Iran is that they are have engaged in direct military aggravation with one another. The increased the frequency of such incidents is not likely to serve the interests of Russia or the Syrian government, since a sustained Israeli military campaign could severely damage the territorial gains the Syrian government has made thus far.
It is unlikely that a conflict between Israel, Iran and its allies is imminent, as both sides are aware of the risks and the cost on civilian life. However, the one lesson of the Syrian war is that nothing is certain in conflict. Nevertheless, all sides are aware that relative calm between Israel and Iran is vital if the Syrian war is to come to a close any time soon, but this poses the question of who presides over mediating this longstanding, aggressive tit-for-tat.
The diplomatic role of the United States in the Syrian war is minimal, as we have seen from the number of peace negotiations which have taken place without U.S. involvement. Russia is the major player in Syria and is likely the only actor with the diplomatic influence and military leverage to negotiate a deal between Israel and Iran.
“Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the de-escalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation,” said a recent report by the Crisis Group.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia November 22, 2017 – REUTERS/Sputnik/Mikhail Metzel/Kremlin
As the balance of power in Syria has dictated, Russia has found a place next to Iran and appears to be coordinating with Syria and Iran in its response to Israeli strikes.
In a press release, Russia stressed the need for all parties to act with “unconditional respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Syria. A respect for sovereignty and territory integrity has long been behind Putin’s support for Syria, meaning this statement does not come as a great surprise.
In reality, Russia is at odds with Iran over how its sees the future of Syria. Russia would like to see a strong Syria that will remain a close ally of Moscow. Whether this would require Assad at the helm is a different question. In contrast, Iran would like to Syria’s future to pan out much like Lebanon, in which the state is factionalized leading to Iran potentially building strong pillars of support.
Thus, it is likely Russia is the best party to mediate the conflict. Although Israel and Iran may be on the brink of a crisis, a full-blown war in unlikely to transpire. Russia aims to see a strong and stable Syria, and an Israeli-Iranian conflict would drag the country further down, where any light would be a speck on the horizon.
As the balance of power on the ground changes, it is looking clearer that the Syrian government will retain control of the state; however, it still has a long way to go. Renewed domestic and regional conflicts continue to make their way to the Syrian battleground, and there is no sign of these abating.