As Israel is becoming increasingly concerned about the growing influence of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Syria, a new phase of the Syrian war is looming. The old “rules of the game” that contained Israeli-Hezbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded and in order to establish new ones, Russia’s mediation is crucial, according to the International Crisis Group, whose most recent Middle East Report is released on February 8.
What’s new? A new phase in Syria’s war augurs escalation with Israel. As the Assad regime gains the upper hand, Hezbollah probes the south west and Iran seeks to augment its partners’ military capacities, Israel has grown fearful that Syria is becoming an Iranian base.
Why does it matter? “Rules of the game” that contained Israeli-Hezbollah clashes for over a decade have eroded. New rules can be established in Syria by mutual agreement or by a deadly cycle of attack and response in which everyone will lose. A broader war could be one miscalculation away.
What should be done? Russia should broker understandings that bolster the de-escalation agreement distancing Iran-backed forces from Syria’s armistice line with Israel; halt Iran’s construction of precision missile facilities and its military infrastructure in Syria; and convince Israel to acquiesce in foreign forces remaining in the rest of Syria pending a deal on the country’s future.
The Syrian war has entered a new stage with the regime of Bashar al-Assad gaining the upper hand. Israel, no longer content to remain a bystander as Damascus’s position improves, is now jockeying to reverse the deterioration of its strategic posture. In this endeavour it has formidable obstacles to overcome: the regime is more dependent than ever on Iran, which Israel regards as its most implacable state foe; other enemies, particularly Hezbollah and Iran-backed Shiite militias, are entrenched in Syria with Russia’s blessing; and the US, notwithstanding the Trump administration’s strident rhetoric, has done little to reverse Iran’s gains. Yet Israel’s hand is not so weak. Russia has given it room to act against Iran-linked military interests and appears to be more interested in balancing contending fighting coalitions than returning every last piece of territory to the Assad regime’s control. But if Russia wishes to eventually withdraw or draw down its forces, it will need to broker rules of the game. Russia has indicated scant interest in doing so, but if it does not, hostilities between Israel and Iran may threaten its accomplishments, particularly regime stability.
Israel’s initial concern was Syria’s south west, where it is determined to prevent Hezbollah or Shiite militias from approaching the 1974 armistice line and setting up offensive infrastructure in its vicinity. Their doing so, as Israel sees it, could mean a new front against it and put Hezbollah in a position to launch attacks from an area in which its Lebanese civilian constituencies would not have to suffer Israeli counter-attacks. The Israeli army, its planners fear, would be left to exact costs in Lebanon, Damascus or Tehran, with the risk of provoking a regional war.
For the moment, a “de-escalation zone” sponsored by Jordan, Russia and the US is keeping Hezbollah and other militias at a distance from the armistice line. But there are signs this arrangement might not hold. Regime forces in January 2018 seized territory from a jihadist group in the zone, enabling allied militias to creep closer to the Israeli-occupied Golan. Isolated Hezbollah forces already are present in the zone and probing its edges. This deterioration could be slowed by bolstering the de-escalation agreement, an element of the 1974 separation of forces agreement between Israel and Syria. But the moment of truth will arrive when the war winds down in other theatres: will the regime make good on its vow to retake the whole country, including the south west? Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to assume that if the regime pursues this goal in earnest, inevitably the assistance of foreign forces will follow.
More broadly, Israel wants to prevent its rivals from consolidating a permanent military presence anywhere in Syria, which, it fears, would strengthen their hand in future wars as well as their influence today in Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinian arena. Iran is of particular concern: Israel’s red lines seek to block it from establishing an airport, naval port, military base, permanent presence of militias or precision weapon production facilities for Hezbollah. Israel has already demonstrated its resolve to disrupt the construction of this sort of major military infrastructure. Russia by and large seems content to let this pattern continue and neither Iran nor Syria can stop it.
Yet Israel’s strikes against militiamen will prove riskier to pursue and easier to thwart, for instance by integrating the fighters into the Syrian army or simply having them don its uniforms. Israeli officials are also concerned at the prospect of a territorial corridor controlled by Iran-linked forces stretching via Iraq into Syria and Lebanon, which arguably could facilitate the movement of fighters and materiel. This development, too, will be harder for Israel to stop, particularly in Syria’s east, since its intelligence and military capacities decrease with distance from the Golan.
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. Attacks by Iran-backed groups over the armistice line dropped over the last couple of years, but Assad’s January 2018 seizure of adjacent territory may augur an increase. Israel too may attack, in the form of limited strikes to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring precision weapons facilities in Lebanon, which it has accused Iran of pursuing. Israel’s military establishment assesses it could do so without provoking an all-out confrontation. Perhaps, but Hezbollah has signalled that the consequences of such a strike are unpredictable. A broader war could be only a miscalculation away.
Regional changes make that miscalculation more likely. An increasingly assertive US-Saudi strategy, with help from Israel, is taking shape to pressure Iran militarily, economically and diplomatically. These powers have adopted an activist posture to establish the deterrence vis-à-vis Iran that they feel was lost during the Barack Obama administration. Hezbollah and Iran of course have ways to reply. Neither Hezbollah nor Israel is a pawn of its allies and both have reasons, particularly the threat to civilian populations, to avoid a major escalation. But hostilities are unlikely to remain local.
In Syria’s south west, Russia appears to be the sole actor capable of mediating understandings to prevent an Iran-Israel escalation across the country. The best currently anticipated outcome would be a deal whereby Iran and its partners forego building major military infrastructure, including but not only in Syria’s south west, but retain significant influence in the country through other means. It is difficult to imagine a reversion to the pre-2011 situation, when the Syrian state, while allied with Iran, was not an arena for an open Iranian presence and military operations. For the foreseeable future, Iran will continue to be a pillar of the regime’s security. But it risks undermining its investment should it overplay its hand.
Everyone stands to lose from an intensification of the Syrian war, first and foremost the Syrian people. So too do Israel and Lebanon, since an altercation between them involving Hezbollah could ignite another war across their borders and beyond. As for Damascus and its backers, a massive campaign by Israel will do enormous damage to their achievements, perhaps even destabilising the regime itself, which would sow discord between Russia and Israel. Gradually stabilising Syria would be a wiser course, and the only viable one toward an eventual settlement.