Iran, Syria, and Israel’s Red Line
The recent skirmishes between Israel and Iranian forces in Syria raise important questions about the “rules of the game,” interests, and red lines of the primary players. Israel claims there can be no arrangement in Syria that allows Iran and Hezbollah forces to remain on Syrian soil, and that includes Shiite militias. The Israelis also insist Syria cannot be a transshipment point for advanced, game-changing weapons, especially Precision Guided Munitions (PMGs) en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Terrorist threats on Israel’s borders will not be tolerated.
Of course, Israel realizes the important role Russia plays in Syria and the country’s significant influence with the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. As such, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invested considerable time and effort to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin and his advisors that it is in Russia’s national interest to ensure that the Iranian access abides by Israel’s red lines. After the latest meetings between Israelis and Russians (held at military, executive and working levels), Russian statements suggest these efforts are beginning to bear fruit. The Russians are apparently beginning to understand that Iran’s presence in Syria is a liability – particularly if Israel continues to keep its “red lines,” including (according to foreign sources) airstrikes against Iranian assets in the heart of this important Russian sphere of influence.
After many years of bloody civil war, Syria's situation has been likened to an omelet that cannot return to its previous state as an egg. Assad may yet believe that the country can return to the status quo ante. This may explain the seemingly irrational and unspeakable acts of brutality he has carried out against his own people, including the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations. Of course, the lack of a response from the international community has given Assad the sense he can do whatever he wants in Syria.
Iran's decision to deploy its military and proxies in Syria stems from the same sense of impunity. Yet, it also stems from the signing of the 2015 Iran deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The agreement, in addition to its failures to prevent Iran from developing aspects of its nuclear program over time, turned Iran from part of the problem into part of the solution. It effectively enabled Iran to join the global coalition against the Islamic State and gave the Iranian military the predicate to build a huge force base in Syria under the pretext of “counterterrorism,” even as Iran supported terror organizations all over the world.
Until recently, Assad saw the international tolerance for Iranian behavior and concluded that, as part of the Iranian axis, he had a green light to also conduct “counterterrorism” operations – even if in reality that meant slaughtering his own people.
President Donald Trump’s May 8 decision to exit the JCPOA, coupled with recent Russian announcements about the future of foreign forces in Syria, portends a significant change in Assad’s strategic position. Officials within the regime have gone so far as to call for foreign forces (not the Russians, of course) to leave Syria, particularly now that the fight against the Islamic State is nearly complete.
One way to ensure such a change would be the delineation of official American policy in Syria. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Iran and its proxies that their activities around the Middle East will not be tolerated. But a more specific policy may push Iran (and indirectly also North Korea) to heed Trump's demands.
The Europeans can help in this regard, which explains Netanyahu’s recent tour of the E3 capitals. However, some Europeans remain frustrated with Trump (and Israel, indirectly) over his decision to exit the JCPOA, and it could complicate their ability to help. Europe’s current policy is to remain in the JCPOA while working to improve it on the margins (European companies are nevertheless canceling their businesses with Iran). An improved deal might include putting pressure on Iran and its proxies. But such efforts may come at a cost for the United States as the Europeans and the U.S. haggle over the final status of the Iran nuclear deal and its regional impact.
From Israel’s perspective, the aim is to ensure that Iran, and all other players, relinquish their designs on a permanent presence - or even a temporary terrorist presence - in Syria. It is highly unlikely that the rumors are true that Israel and Russia (with Syria and even maybe U.S. assistance) agreed on a deal to move Iranian forces farther from Israel’s northern border in return for Israeli acceptance of Assad’s Syrian forces returning to the border. Israel’s firm and non-negotiable request is that Iranian forces will be entirely out of Syria, and for good.
Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a visiting professor at the Technion and a visiting fellow at FDD. He previously served as the head of Israel’s National Security Council and as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Advisor.