- Israel's defense minister hinted that Israel could have normal diplomatic relations with Syria under Assad
- The comment comes as Assad's forces press towards the contentious Golan Heights
- Israel is pressuring international powers and Assad to keep Iran away from Israel's borders
- In combatting Iran, Israel appears willing to recruit a wide array of sides to counter-balance the rising power
As forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad retake southern Syria, Israel is beginning to warm up to the Syrian regime.
When asked by a reporter if Israel will re-establish normalized diplomatic relations with Syria, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman replied: “I reckon we are a long way from that, but we are not ruling out anything.”
Lieberman's statement was bolstered by Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, who spoke after a joint meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin, saying that Israel has no interest in combating or ousting the Syrian regime, and is entirely focused on beating back Iran.
Israel is looking for regional players to ensure Iranian forces stay away from southern Syria and the Golan Heights, and Liberman’s comment comes at a time when Israel is looking for any way to stop an Iranian advanced towards its borders.
Assad, for his part, does not appear willing or able to confront Israel in its vast military buildup near and inside the Golan Heights, but his hands may be tied by entrenched Iranian influence in his own ranks.
Occasional shelling of regime positions aside, Israel is looking far and wide for countries that share an interest in deterring a war with Iran. Assad's Syria, for now, may be that partner.
Benjamin Netanyahu (AFP/FILE)
Iran, keen on maintaining its growing sphere of influence, may be superficially complying with Russia’s requests to stay clear of the Golan Heights, but could be quietly working to ensure it maintains a presence near to Israel.
Experts warn that the ‘doomsday clock’ of an Israeli/Iranian military confrontation is slowly ticking closer to midnight, pushing Israel to begin acquiescing to Assad with the hopes that he could keep Iranian forces away from the Golan Heights.
The Southern Offensive
A rebel soldier looks past sandbags in the southern region of Syria during the regime-led offensive in July, 2018 (AFP)
Although much of southern Syria is demarcated as a ‘de-escalation’ zone, Assad launched the an offensive to retake the region, which includes the city of Deraa and the strategically important Quneitra. The former is where the Syrian civil war started in 2011 when protests broke out and the latter is just a few miles east of the contentious Golan Heights region.
Israel has publicly and privately threatened to strike any Iranian-affiliated forces if they get to close to the Golan Heights or if they are too involved in the southern offensive. Already, Syrian state media reported that Israel bombed an airbase with Iranian personnel in it on Sunday, July 8.
Israel has been using Russia as the mediator between itself and Iran, even reportedly enticing Russia to pressure Iran further in exchange for the lifting of some U.S. sanctions on Russia.
Russia has tried to ensure that no forces directly tied to Iran are present in the southern offensive, but Russian assurances are not enough for Israel, and likely not sufficient for Iran to stay out of the region in the long-term.
“The very fact of Iranian presence in Syria is, in our view, unreasonable. We are not prepared to accept Iranian presence in any part of Syria and, as I’m sure you’ve heard more than once, we will act against Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” Israel’s Lieberman said.
“We are seeing efforts by figures associated with the [Iran-led] axis, with permission from the regime, to establish terrorist infrastructure here in the Syrian Golan Heights,” Lieberman added, hinting that Israel will continue to strike targets in southern Syria.
But pushing out Iranian forces from southern Syria is a tricky task.
In addition to forces commanded by Iran and Iranian-linked Hezbollah forces, scores of smaller paramilitary groups are funded by Iran. These groups often recruit local Syrians from the regions in which they operate, blurring the lines between who is and is not guided by Iran’s geopolitical agenda.
“Iran has at least tacitly accepted Russia's request to pull out of southern Syria and to stay away from the buffer zone with Israel,” said Nick Grinstead, a security expert focused on Syria, to Al Bawaba.
“It stands to reason that Iranian-trained and Hezbollah fighters would try to blend in with SAA [Syrian Arab Army] troops in the battle to try and assist in the battles and gather intelligence,” he added.
“Iran would like to build a presence in southern Syria as a(another) deterrent against Israel but they'll keep having to work under the Israeli radar. At the same time they're going to keep pushing the envelope with Russia to see how much it's willing to commit to reigning Iran in in Syria.”
Israel, the Good Neighbor
(IDF website, ‘Operation Good Neighbor)
In trying to counter growing Iranian influence, Israel has been quietly waging a hearts and minds campaign to win over southern Syrians. In addition, they’ve been supplying rebel groups to stand in as Israeli proxies.
But now that the region is about to be totally recaptured by Assad, Israel is beginning to warm up to Assad himself.
Israel had been treating wounded rebels in Israeli hospitals for years, but began acting more overtly in 2017 when it launched ‘Operation Good Neighbor.’
Operation Good Neighbor is an ongoing, Israeli army-led campaign to provide medical aid and services to Syrians living in the south of the country. Using humanitarian organizations, Israel has tried to show its good faith as an ally of the Syrian people. On top of this, Israel has been arming rebel groups to act as a kind of de facto border patrol near the Golan Heights.
"We are believe[ing] that by doing this humanitarian aid we are making good neighbors and by this we can secure the Israeli-Syrian border," an Israeli officer told a reporter from CBN.
But now that the rebel force is crumbling, Israel is beginning to hedge its bets on Assad keeping Iran at bay, being a ‘good neighbor’ to all sides.
Israel and Syria have been historically at odds, periodically warring with each other for the past 50 years. Israel’s Defense Minister hinting that they could establish normalize would then be a major shift for both countries’ stances toward one another.
Assad’s hands however, may be tied as Iran maintains outsized influence both in Syria and within the regime itself: “I believe the Iranians will continue to test their limits but are ultimately patient and will wait for an opportune moment to act while slowly building capacity throughout Syria,” Grinstead noted.
Iran has leveraged its position as a major military player in Syria to begin to directly threaten Israel’s borders.
In practical terms, this means that despite overtures from Israel and Russia to curb Iranian influence on Syria, it may be too late, and the doomsday clock for a direct military confrontation is moving closer to ‘midnight.’
The Human Cost
The regime-led southern offensive has resulted in yet another humanitarian catastrophe in Syria.
“The crisis in southern Syria has created the largest ever wave of displacement in the Syrian war, forcing more than 330,000 people to flee for their lives, including aid workers who themselves became targets and in need of help,” said Karl Schembri, a spokesperson for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
“Tens of thousands were pushed out in wide stretches of desert towards the Jordanian border and Israeli-occupied Golan leaving them nowhere else to go. We’ve heard reports of pregnant women giving birth in the open under the scorching sun and children dying because of lacking medical assistance,” he added.
Even as the Syrian war mutates, fragments and becomes more intractable, many in the international community falsely perceive it to be calming down or coming to an end. Schembri thinks this is outright dangerous. “There is indeed a risk of donors looking the other way because of fatigue or because of the wrong impression that Syria is now safe. As we’ve seen in the last weeks, there are huge areas where Syria is anything but safe.”
And even in regions where fighting has stopped, “the destruction and unexploded bombs make many areas highly dangerous, basic services are not yet available, and the people need all the support possible.”
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