Syria is a front in need of attention. It is a front where Israel might risk war.
Two weeks ago, Israel reportedly — it did not officially comment — attacked south of Damascus. A week and a half ago, Israel (reportedly) attacked again. In both cases, there was an aura of vagueness surrounding the targets. An “Iranian base,” it was said. A “Syrian military facility.” Why were these specific targets attacked? What is it that bothers Israel about them — assuming it really was Israel that attacked?
Then, on Dec. 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly landed in Syria and declared victory over ISIS and announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. “Friends, the Motherland is waiting for you,” Putin told his troops. “You are coming back home with victory!”
Why now and not two weeks ago or two weeks from now? Only Putin knows. In recent weeks, Russia backed the Syrian narrative, according to which the regime is close to winning the war, while the U.S. argued that these declarations of an impending victory are premature. So maybe Putin was just making the point by putting his money — or military forces — where his mouth is.
Russia seems to be pleased enough with such victory. Putin is rightly satisfied.
In many ways, this debate is about semantics. Define “victory”; define “Syrian victory.”
The Donald Trump administration believes that a vast majority of the forces fighting in support of the Syrian government — the regime still under the control of the ever-doomed-to-departure President Bashar Assad — is made up of foreign forces. A victory? Maybe. But this will not be a victory of Syrian forces under Assad. It will be a victory of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, of Iraqi militias and, most of all, of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Russia seems to be pleased enough with such victory. When its leader decided to jump into the Syria swamp, his goal was to fill a vacuum created by American inaction, save his ally Assad and keep Russian interests in the country unharmed. Looking at these three objectives, Putin is rightly satisfied. He was able to demonstrate to Middle Eastern and other world regimes that Russia is an ally no less — or maybe more — reliable than the United States. He was able to guard Russia’s interests in the country (among them, military bases). He was able to save Assad, for now. In the summer of 2011, President Barack Obama first called for the Syrian president to step down. The Russians said no. The Russians had their way.
Israel was disturbed by many of these developments. Having Russia, rather than the U.S., as the main power broker in the region does not seem appealing. Having Assad becoming an Iranian proxy does not seem appealing. Having Assad win the war as an Iranian proxy does not seem appealing.
Israel warily watches as payback looms. Iran won the war for Assad, and is now expecting a reward: military presence in Syria, not too far from the Israeli border.
Israel declared such development a red line. Speaking in a video message to the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was clear: “We will not allow a regime hellbent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to acquire nuclear weapons. We will not allow that regime to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”
So, after the attacks (allegedly by Israel) in Syria, one has to assume that the goal is in line with this message. Sabotage all the Iranians’ attempts to entrench themselves in Syria. Destroy their facilities and disrupt their plans, sending them a message of warning.
This message is aimed at Iran and its allies, but no less at Russia and the U.S. The superpowers can let the situation deteriorate by letting Israel and Iran conduct a war in Syria’s territory. They also can choose to prevent it by taking a side. The potential problem for Israel is obvious: What happens in case Russia takes Iran’s side — that is, insist that Israel cease from attacking in Syria — while the U.S. remains on the sidelines?
Israel can do what’s necessary to stop Iran from entrenching in Syria. But opposing the Russians is a lot riskier. Thus, the reduction of Russian presence on Syrian soil puts Israel in a position more convenient for free action.
On the other hand, the Russians are leaving and an even larger vacuum must be filled. Iran seems ready to try to fill it. Israel seems ready to not allow it. So, a proxy war becomes even more likely today than it did a few weeks ago.
Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.