Tel Aviv has had a bad few weeks. A once favorable regional balance of power has suddenly shifted in a direction that clips Israel’s wings – all while adversaries on its borders are making swift strategic gains.
At the core of the issue is Israel’s obsession with Iranian ascendency in the region. The 2015 nuclear deal that ended the Islamic Republic’s isolation was a real setback for the Israeli establishment, but what really hit home this summer was a steady succession of political and military victories for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.
So Israel’s power players headed to Washington and Sochi to try to claw back some lost leverage on the ground.
They returned from Washington empty-handed, unable to wrest guarantees on keeping Iranian and allied troops out of southern Syria, where the US and Russia in July established a de-escalation zone near Israel’s border.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s consultations with Russian President Vladimir Putin went nowhere too. Russian accounts of those talks describe a highly “agitated” and “emotional” Netanyahu who was told in no uncertain terms by a calm Putin: “Iran is Russia’s strategic ally in the Middle East.” To Netanyahu, Putin offered what must have comparatively felt like crumbs: “Israel is also an important partner of Russia in the region.”
The Israeli prime minister and other senior officials went on the offensive after that meeting, promising to “defend ourselves by all means” from Iran’s ambitions in Syria, and threatening military attacks on Assad’s “palace in Damascus.”
But the Russians clearly hadn’t forgotten that shortly after Netanyahu’s last encounter with Putin – in March – Israel launched strikes against their Syrian ally, one of which came dangerously near Russian troops.
This time around, it seems Putin was set on drawing new red lines with Israel. In the aftermath of the Netanyahu meeting, the Russians announced the establishment of a unified air defense system with Syria, “capable of destroying targets within a range of up to 400 kilometers at an altitude of up to 35 kilometers.”
Yet the Israeli threats haven’t ceased. And if there’s one thing this region has learned over time, it is that Tel Aviv operates in its own exceptionalist bubble, and can react irrationally and disproportionately against its neighbors, with no clear, attainable end goals in sight.
So, what explains the panic in Israel right now? And why has it escalated so suddenly?
Lebanon: Last week, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) closed a chapter on the years-long occupation of eastern Lebanon by ISIS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra terrorist groups. The three forces launched a stunning military offensive that took out al-Nusra in a mere six days and ISIS in nine – including time spent in negotiations.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah dubbed the successful anti-terrorism operation “the Second Liberation” – the first being Lebanon’s liberation from Israeli occupation forces in 2000.
In the years leading up to this battle, Hezbollah and the LAF have been coordinating anti-terrorism efforts in Lebanon, an unprecedented collaboration that has outraged Israelis and Americans both. The US provides training and weaponry for the LAF but considers the Lebanese resistance group a terrorist organization, even though Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s cabinet and parliament.
The liberation of the strategic Lebanese-Syrian border area has not only freed up Hezbollah forces for deployment on other frontlines – including its southern border with Israel – but, importantly, now represents the first full Syrian border reclaimed by the SAA from terrorists since the start of the Syrian crisis.
“The enemy (Israel),” announced Nasrallah after the fight, “is crying over its orphans and is acknowledging the defeat of its project and friends in Syria.”
Syria: The Hezbollah leader may have a point. Outside of ISIS’s stronghold in eastern Syria where it has lost thousands of square kilometers to the SAA and its allies, the terror group occupies one small remaining territory near the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. That area in southwestern Syria is also home to several other militant groups, most prominently al-Nusra, whose injured fighters have been tended to by Israeli medics for much of the conflict.
The Israelis, who have reportedly launched dozens of strikes against Syrian allied forces during this conflict, have rarely attacked al-Nusra or ISIS. Israel’s Defense Minister in 2016, Moshe Yaalon, made headlines when he said: “In Syria, if the choice is between Iran and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State.” Some in the Israeli policy community have supported this line – one report last year entitled “The destruction of Islamic State is a strategic mistake” advocates for keeping ISIS around to “hamper Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.”
Such is Israel’s fixation with the Islamic Republic, that Syria’s recent spate of victories against ISIS have set off alarm bells in Tel Aviv.
To compound Israel’s setbacks, the US-Russian southern de-escalation agreement has now halted the militants’ ability to fight Syrian allied forces around Quneitra (Syrian Golan), Daraa and Suweida – areas now policed by Syria’s Russian allies.
Jordan: In Amman, a joint de-escalation monitoring center for this southern zone has just been launched, which will likely force the Jordanians to secure and normalize their northern border with Syria. Earlier this summer, the Jordanians had been on board a Saudi-led (and Israeli-supported) alliance of mostly Sunni Muslim states that sought to squash Iran’s regional influence. At the time, Jordan had loudly insisted on the removal of Iranian-backed fighters from its border with Syria. But today, that “Arab NATO” alliance has collapsed amidst a heated inter-GCC dispute, and Jordanians appear to be recalibrating their regional stance to accept the “de-escalation zone” vision launched by Russia, Turkey and…Iran.
The terms of the southern de-escalation agreement reached between the US and Russia are secret, but the word is that there is no specific language that diminishes Iranian, Hezbollah and their allied militias’ role in Syria.
For Israel, this means that it can no longer count on Islamist militants obstructing Syrian government control over the south. It also means that Jordan, which just last week re-opened its Trebil border crossing with Iraq, is now moving incrementally toward re-opening its Nasib border crossing with Syria. The commercial dividends of these two actions could contribute between $1-2 billion to Jordan’s depleted coffers – a healthy incentive for the Jordanians to play nice with Syria.
Turkey: Jordan’s political and security “diversification” comes directly on the back of a visit to Amman by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once the most vocal regional critic of Bashar al-Assad, and a major supplier of weapons and Islamist fighters into the Syrian military theater.
Erdogan is back in play with the Russians and Iranians after briefly toying with the Saudi ‘Arab NATO’ project against Iran. Jordanian media reports even claim the Turkish president offered up mediation with Iran to smooth over Amman’s lingering doubts.
But what accounts for his transformation?
While Erdogan has not explicitly embraced an Assad-ruled Syria or an active Iranian role south of his border, two urgent regional developments have softened his position and drawn him back into the Iranian-Russian orbit.
The first is the major political crisis engulfing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, pitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain against Qatar. Like its Turkish ally, Qatar has been a leading supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and pursues a diversified foreign policy agenda, which includes political and economic relations with Iran.
The GCC spat created a further divide within the region, which until recently consisted mainly of pro-Iran and pro-Saudi camps. Now, Turkey and Qatar form a third camp, and have sought to mitigate Saudi-UAE pressures by re-engaging with Iran and its allies.
The second impetus comes from the US’s unrelenting support for the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters in the north of Syria. Erdogan has beseeched the Americans to abandon their support for these Kurds who are primarily Syrian affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group considered terrorists by both Ankara and Washington.
The Americans have ignored his requests, even though the SDP has shown intent to occupy and federalize the entire north of Syria – from Iraq to the Mediterranean – spanning the length of the Turkish border.
On this issue, Ankara now shares common cause with Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus, all vehemently opposed to Kurdish national aspirations.
This takes place against the backdrop of a Kurdish referendum for independence in Iraq slated for late September, which all four capitals oppose. Israel, which has close ties to the Kurdish government in Erbil, is the only country to date that supports this referendum. ‘Kurdistan’ is a matter of strategic interest for Tel Aviv. The establishment of Kurdish federal entities in Syria and Iraq, after all, means the partitioning and weakening of those Arab states. And importantly, Kurdish statelets in these areas can act as ‘geographic buffers’ to impede Iran’s easy access to Israel’s borders.
So Turkey’s re-engagement with Iran and Russia not only contributes to the stability of the Syrian state, but also puts a spanner in the works of Israel’s Kurdish pet project.
Hamas: The ‘Resistance Axis’ was once a club of four – Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas – but conflicting objectives in Syria drew Hamas out of the axis, until now. New Hamas leadership has prioritized neutral relationships with all regional states, and has sought to reinstate relations and funding from the Islamic Republic.
Last week, Hamas’ politburo chief in Gaza, Yahya Senwar, announced: “Iran is the largest supporter of the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades (Hamas’ military wing) in terms of financial support and support with weapons,” and expressed optimism that “the Syrian crisis shall end, which will open the horizons for restoring the relations with (Syria).”
For Israel, that means the rift between the Hamas-led Gaza Strip and Iran has ended, and weapons and aid will flow back to the Palestinian resistance group unimpeded.
Events on Israel’s western, northern and eastern borders have suddenly – in a few short weeks – scuttled the geopolitical balance that favored Tel Aviv a few short years ago, as Syria disintegrated, Iraq fragmented, Lebanon over-extended, and Gaza struggled alone.
Today, the likelihood of Iran enjoying a contiguous land corridor between its borders and the occupied Golan is greater than ever before. The Resistance Axis has gained tremendous military experience in the past six years in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, and most importantly, has done so by coordinating troops, intelligence and battle plans from a single command center – for the first time in its history as an alliance. Furthermore, this axis now enjoys international political cover from two permanent UN Security Council members, Russia and China. The Russians now have significant military experience alongside three members of this axis, and the Chinese are eager to expand their economic vision into those West Asian states, with Iran as a key hub for oil and gas and pipelines.
As these countries move forward to extinguish regional terrorism and reconstruct their infrastructure and societies, the Israelis will be left out in the cold. But while Israel’s options dwindle, the military one just seems to keep getting louder. It’s the one option – the ‘stick’ – that the Israelis gravitate to most easily, and a war of aggression against Lebanon and Gaza – or strikes against Syria – are not out of the question.
Hezbollah continues to demand the return of the remaining Lebanese territories Israel occupies, the Shebaa Farms and Kfarshuba hills, and Syria, once back on its feet, will do the same with the Golan. Both will do so from a strengthened position in this new Middle East. The question is, does Israel recognize its new environment?
A version of this article was originally published at The American Conservative (TAC) on September 6, 2017. Read this article in French, Arabic and Portuguese. Follow the author on Twitter and Facebook.