Analysis by Jotam Confino.
Last month Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, discussed the challenges facing Lebanon at a Carnegie conference, where he bluntly declared Russia and Iran the winners of the Syrian war, not Assad. Prime Minister Hariri might not be the most unbiased person to ask, since his country is suffering immensely from the pressure of its more than one million Syrian refugees, but he has a point.
Assad is currently watching foreign powers carve up his country into zones of interests, leaving him little or nothing to say. Russia is by far the leading power in Syria now, due to its heavy investment in the survival of the Assad regime. With ISIS almost defeated, and rebel groups slowly realizing their cause is lost, regional powers are now competing for a slice of the cake. In the middle of this competition stands Russia, after the Trump administration practically gave Putin permission to decide the future of Syria.
Left is Israel, Iran and Turkey whose politicians, military generals and intelligence directors rush back and forth to meet with Russia and the US to make their voices heard. Yesterday, Iran’s Chief of General Staff, Mohammad Bagheri, ended his three-day trip to Ankara, in which the two regional powers agreed to ‘boost military cooperation’. Iran and Turkey are now looking past their differences over the Assad regime, and focusing on securing their interests in Syria.
Turkey’s main interest is to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing a state on the Turkish border, while Iran wants to make sure that it will have a direct supply line from Tehran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, through Iraq and Syria. In addition, Iran wants to be present through proxy militias as close to the Israeli border as possible, but will need accept from Russia since it’s responsible for the safety of the de-escalation and cease-fire zones, however fragile they might be.
After the details of the ‘Syria deal’ were made public, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu criticized it deeply, saying the deal almost didn’t take any of Israel’s security concerns regarding Hezbollah and Iran into consideration. Since then, a visit to Washington by Mossad Chief, Yossi Cohen, and head of the IDF Military Intelligence, Herzl Halevi, has been planned. The visit is expected to revolve around Israel’s dissatisfaction with the ‘Syria-deal’. The Israeli intelligence chiefs hope they will be able to persuade Washington that it’s in the US’ interest as well that Iran and Hezbollah won’t be present in Syria at all.
As usual, the rhetoric between Iran, Hezbollah and Israel remains hostile. This week, an Israeli report revealed satellite photo of what seems to be a Scud missile factory in Syria allegedly build by Iran. If the intelligence is valid, Israel’s fear of Iran’s ambitions in Syria after the war will only grow. Until now, it’s been known that Israel has struck weapon convoys from Iran to Hezbollah numerous times, but yesterday the Chief of Israel’s Air Force revealed that it has struck these convoys nearly 100 timesstruck these convoys nearly 100 times since the outbreak of the Syrian war.
The announcement seems to be an attempt by Israel to warn Iran and Hezbollah, but both Iran and Israel know that Russia is standing between them. There is no doubt that Iran has benefited greatly from its cooperation with Russia in the Syrian war, but the Iranians shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Russia doesn’t take Israel’s interests into consideration, despite the nature of the ‘Syria-deal’.
Russia isn’t interested in having Israeli planes bombing convoys near its soldiers every other day, nor can Hezbollah expect Russia to let them freely operate near the Syrian border to Israel. On the other hand, Russia’s presence in the ‘security zone’ on the Syrian border to Israel means that the Israeli military will have to continue to coordinate closely with Russia when operating in that area. It doesn’t mean Russia will accept Israel’s demand that Iran and Hezbollah are to be removed from Syria completely. The compromise lies in between, but the situation can easily escalate if one side decides to take unilateral action.
So far, Hezbollah has been deterred from attacking Israel since the 2006 Lebanon war, but its military capability has been greatly improved since then. Hezbollah might have suffered heavy casualties, but it has gained significant experience as well. Its latest offensive against ISIS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Arsal on the Lebanese border to Syria gave Hezbollah a moral boost along with an opportunity to show the Lebanese people that they can rely on them for security.
Needless to say, Israel is monitoring the situation in Lebanon carefully, and at the same time doing all it can to secure its interests on the Syrian border. With the US out of the picture, Israel needs to rely on Russia to protect its interests. One thing is sure, though. The battle for post-war Syria has begun, and Turkey, Iran and Israel are all doing what they can to make sure that they end up with the upper hand. Currently, Iran looks as the greatest beneficiary, along with Russia of course.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.