Iranians at the gate
Prof. Eyal Zisser
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Russia last week was dedicated to the Iranian issue, or, more precisely, to Israel’s red lines on any Iranian presence in Syria if and when the six-year civil war there comes to an end.
The possibility that Russia may be able to do the seemingly impossible and strike a peace deal between the warring parties in Syria in the foreseeable future has Israel wary of the regional gains this may spell for Iran.
Iran could have significant influence in Syria and potentially even physical control of the country, thanks to tens of thousands of operatives on the ground in the form of Hezbollah members, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ soldiers, or Shiite militia fighters “imported” by Iran into Syria from across the Middle East.
What the world can expect from post-war Syria is reflected in recent reports of Iran’s plans to build a naval base in Tartus, the second largest port city in Syria after Latakia, as well as in reports that Revolutionary Guard units and Hezbollah forces are planning to overrun the Syrian Golan Heights, to liberate it from the rebels and re-establish Syrian control over the area — a move that would effectively place Iranian forces on the Syria-Israel border.
Iran, most likely, has no interest in a direct conflict with Israel, but history has proved it will use its proxies in Syria — Hezbollah, Damascus-based Palestinian terrorist groups, and various Shiite militias — to do its bidding. This means the immediate issue Israel must deal with is the Iranian and Hezbollah presence in southern Syria, while the long-term issue is the question of Iran’s status in Syria in any deal in which Syrian President Bashar Assad remains in power.
The campaign to liberate the northeastern Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State, which is scheduled to begin in the next few days, stands to significantly impact the Iranian presence in the country as well: If the Turks and the Sunni Syrian rebels at their command take the city, or if the Kurds, who have American assistance, do so, that will lead to the creation of a buffer zone between Shiite Iraq and the rest of Assad-controlled Syria. But if Assad’s forces, with the help of Iranian troops, are the ones to take Raqqa, Iran will be able to establish control over a land axis spanning from Tehran through Iraq and eastern Syria to Damascus and Beirut.
Russian President Vladimir Putin most likely listened carefully to Netanyahu’s warnings. But for now, Russia is standing by its cynical alliance with Iran. Tehran and Moscow desire first and foremost to cement Assad’s control in Syria, and the presence of Iranian and Shiite operatives in the country is imperative to that end.
Netanyahu was wise to make it clear to Putin that Israel is determined to maintain its regional interests and will not allow anyone to cross its red lines, even if Russia sees things differently.
Incidentally, this dynamic was present in recent strikes against Syrian weapon shipments to Hezbollah, which foreign media attributed to Israel. The Russians did nothing to prevent these shipments, nor did they hide their disapproval of the alleged Israeli efforts to thwart them, but the dialogue between Jerusalem and Moscow over the past year resulted in Russia’s acceptance of Israel’s position on the matter.
It is safe to assume that Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin sought to reach similar understandings with regard to Israel’s red lines over Iran and Hezbollah’s presence in the Golan Heights, and perhaps in other areas in Syria as well.