Israel’s attack on Syria reveals new fault lines

Alan Philps looks at recent geopolitical moves in the Middle East

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  Etienne Oliveau / EPA
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Last Friday, Israeli bombers flew into Syria to attack a weapons store belonging to the Iranian-supplied Hizbollah militia near the desert town of Palmyra. At one level, this is nothing new – the Israelis have repeatedly bombed what they describe as convoys of arms such as rockets heading for Lebanon, which could change the balance of forces on the Lebanese border.

However, the reaction of the Syrian and Russian governments to this raid has been anything but routine, indicating that a new and more complex stage of the war has begun, one that may test the Kremlin’s diplomatic skills to the limit as it tries to create the conditions for a permanent ceasefire.

In this case, the Syrians responded to the attack by launching anti-aircraft missiles that strayed into Israeli territory, provoking a response from Israel’s anti-missile shield. Then the Israeli ambassador to Moscow was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry to explain the raid.

This is a bizarre diplomatic response since the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, have remained in close contact to avoid clashes between the two countries’ air forces and navies. What the Israelis have been doing to contain Hizbollah is certainly no secret to the Russians.

How then to explain this sudden tension between Russia and Israel? First, the launching of the anti-aircraft missiles is a clear sign of renewed confidence by the Syrian regime. (The missiles were apparently ancient SA-5s, not the far more sophisticated air defence system that Russia has installed in Syria to protect its own installations.)

Since the retaking of Aleppo in December, Bashar Al Assad seems to believe he is a victorious warrior statesman. Of course, it was Russia and Iran and its allied militias including Hizbollah that provided the air power and the foot soldiers to turn the tide of battle. Without them, the Al Assad family might already be in exile.

The second trend is that Iran, far from packing its bags and leaving Syria, seems to be settling in for the long haul. In recompense for the money and blood it has spent in the war, it wants a port on the Mediterranean, reviving memories of an imperial power play dating back to the ancient empire.

Of even greater concern to the Israelis is their fear that Hizbollah will be allowed to open a second front along the occupied Golan Heights, Syrian territory seized by Israel in 1967. This would turn Israel’s border with Syria, which the Assad family has kept quiet for more than three decades, into a war zone.

The decline in war fighting in Syria has changed the Israeli calculus. Hitherto Israel has been happy to watch Hizbollah losing men and credibility at home and in the wider Muslim world for engaging in an inter-Arab war rather than directing its firepower at Israel.

It is true that its halo is tarnished, but the result of the war may end up raising Hizbollah’s profile as the one force able to inflict damage on Israel.

These Israeli fears have led the defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to threaten to wipe out any Syria anti-aircraft battery that fires on intruding Israeli bombers. The same concerns are shared by Washington, which had made it clear that it sees the basis of a Syrian peace deal as the departure of Iran and its proxies from Syria. In the words of Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, “We've got to make sure that, as we move forward, we're securing the borders for our allies as well.”

All this adds up to a diplomatic conundrum for Russia as it attempts to secure a permanent ceasefire in Syria. Neither Moscow, nor the Al Assad regime, has any interest in allowing Hizbollah to establish itself on the Golan border, not least because Iran’s tried and tested practice of manipulating its proxy militias will get in the way of the Russian policy of strengthening the Syrian state and its army, both of which came close to collapse.

But the Syrian regime, which has been dependent on Iran for money and oil as well as fighting men, is in no position to say no to Iranian demands. Nor can the Russians. Their profile in the Middle East may have risen to new heights as a result of US disinterest, but they know full well that they do not have the money or military capacity to take sole responsibility for remaking the region.

Russia is committed to Israeli security but the word coming out of Moscow is that Israeli concerns will not prevent the formation of a “united antiterrorism front” against ISIL, which still has its headquarters in the city of Raqqa, in north-east Syria. Such a “united front” would inevitably include Iran and the Shia Muslim militias it has assembled from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moscow likes to accuse the Americans of hypocrisy in its concern over Iranian influence in Syria. Commentators point to the battle to drive out ISIL from the Iraqi city of Mosul, where the US military and air power are in open alliance with Iran and its militias.

Why is it right, they ask, for America to use Iran to crush ISIL in Iraq and wrong for Russia to do the same in Syria? Part of the answer is that America, for all its sins, is not propping up an unrepresentative, murderous government guilty of huge war crimes, while Russia is doing exactly that.

How Russia intends to resolve the issue of Iran in Syria is not yet known. What is clear is that Russia is feeling pressure over its alliance with Iran, and is not inclined to give in. In the words of the Russian commentator Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, “it is totally unrealistic to hope that Russia will throw Iran under the bus for the sake of a rapprochement with the Trump administration or even better ties with Israel”.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps