Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Israel has managed to live next door to it without being part of it. Israel’s relations with Assad the father and Assad the son have been based on deterrence, not peace. Syria knows Israel can eliminate Damascus in an afternoon. And it isn’t Israel’s job to determine who manages the country. Thus, the relative – stress relative – quiet these years.
Israel has had three red lines throughout the war:
- No Iranian or Hezbollah bases near the Israeli border; now revised to no Iran in Syria.
- No weapons delivered by Iran to Hezbollah that Israel considers “situation-changing”
- No use of non-conventional weapons
The Trump administration agreed with that last one and administered the punishment. Twice.
Other than that, Israel enforces its own red lines and advises Russia of certain of its plans. That has also been a stable situation for Israel, but that may change as the war reaches what appears to be an end state.
The Assad government will survive, hanging onto about 60% of its former territory. Russia will maintain its naval and air bases. Russia and Israel — and the United States — have generally agreed that all “foreign forces” should leave Syria — although when Russia says that, it means the United States. (Russian bases, the Russians will tell you, are in the country with the permission of the Assad government – American bases are not.) The United States and Israel mean Iran, a position with which Russia agrees in principle, but toward which it is unlikely to put military muscle behind.
Ultimately, according to some sources, Russia wants to be a power broker between Iran and Israel. Russia could say, “Let’s get to where we want to be through negotiation. Russia will host Iran and Israel – or Israel and Syria – to see how to do this.” The United States will be furious, and Israel will have a hard time saying no if Iran or Syria says yes – although neither is likely to agree.
But Russia won’t care – it will have made the offer; its political standing will be enhanced; it won’t have to commit more troops. If Iran doesn’t leave, well… so what? The Russians will say, “We tried. We’ll try again, and, in the meantime, we’ll keep saying that there is an 80km buffer between Iran and Israel.” The fact that Israel doesn’t accept the 80km buffer and insists that Iran has to go home is, in this case, irrelevant.
Now, there is a contrarian view:
Assad may be ready to end fighting on his soil – signs of change are a flower festival in Damascus and rumors that families are beginning to her about the fate of loved ones “disappeared” by the regime. He will need money – lots of it – to begin to repair the damage, but the part of the country he does not control contains oil and fertile cropland – both of which helped fill the treasury in Damascus and now don’t.
In addition, the Assad government is Alawite Shiite — heterodox Shiites that some other Shiites call “devil worshippers”. They comprise about 15% of the total Syrian population — maybe up to 20 percent since almost all the Syrian refugees are Sunni. But that’s it. Who is going to make Syria a garrison state to use against Israel? Iran? Letting Iran put missile factories or batteries or nuclear facilities inside the country will invite an Israeli response and Russian indifference.
Iran will have trouble being the hegemon in Syria. It doesn’t rule the country and it can’t do more than the Assad government allows. Iran’s exposure in Syria is about $16 BILLION thus far — while the Obama windfall is dwindling and sanctions are getting ready to really bite. Someone would have to keep paying for missile factories and tens of thousands of mercenaries.
Syria won’t. Iran can’t.
And Iran is watching over its shoulder. Demonstrators at home have been yelling, “Death to Palestine. Death to Hezbollah.” What they mean is that they understand completely that the huge influx of money that came to Iran because of the JCPOA has already been spent — abroad, not on them. The hold of the mullahs on the people is slipping in increasingly visible ways.
The United States should do whatever it can to encourage that – sanctions are one way and social media can be helpful. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s YouTube video to the Iranian people about water policy was huge inside Iran. More than 5 million hits and more than 100,000 Iranians joined Israel’s Telegram channel in the first 24 hours after it went up. People in Iran are looking for friends.
A change in the Iranian regime could be the best chance Syria has to end its horrific war.