As Israel Lets the Syrians Battle It Out, Iran Deters Israel From Next Door

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Israeli soldiers drive on an armored personnel carrier past a cow during training in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, near the border with Syria Monday, March 9, 2015.Credit: AP

The fourth year of Syria’s civil war has been a year of paralysis. Although the killing continued and the humanitarian disaster worsened, there was no breakthrough. Even the murderous rise of the Islamic State, which became a household name whether called by that moniker, ISIS or ISIL, didn’t turn the tide.

If anything, the Islamic State may be suffering the repercussions of too much success. Its rapid takeover of territory in eastern Syria and especially its gruesome public-relations campaign got the West significantly intervening in Syria for the first time.

The U.S.-led air strikes that started in the summer in Syria and Iraq didn’t only push back the Islamic State, they strengthened Syrian President Bashar Assad’s hold on areas under his control. The immediate danger to his regime has passed, as long as nobody assassinates him. The West no longer sees replacing the tyrant as so urgent; it finds that his rivals are no less brutal and are proud of their barbarism.

From Israel’s point of view, developments in recent months reflect the lesser evil amid a batch of unsavory options. Although Israel would never admit it, the fighting among the Syrian factions serves its interests. The Syrian army, until a few years ago the Israel Defense Forces’ most fierce foe, has been pulverized.

But a radical-Sunni takeover of all Syria isn’t in Israel’s interest because it would be hard to predict these groups’ moves and deter them. So Israel simply prefers that the two sides battle it out. Israel can’t say these things publicly without being criticized, so its leaders are saying little and opting for lip service about the Syrian people’s suffering.

The latest round of hostilities began on January 18. It consisted of the attack in the Syrian Golan attributed to Israel in the foreign media; an Iranian general and six Hezbollah operatives were killed. Then came Hezbollah’s attack on a Givati Brigade convoy on Har Dov; two Israeli soldiers were killed.

After that a tense calm prevailed along the border. It was clear that both sides wanted to prevent things from getting out of control.

Still, Hezbollah is clearly determined to establish a new status quo along the Syrian and Lebanese border, which it sees as a single front with Israel. The group’s Iranian patrons have a definite interest here. In the last few months, the presence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard on the Syrian and Lebanese border has become a clear fact on the ground. Iran has created a joint border with Israel.

Iran may be heading toward a long-term nuclear agreement with the big powers, but it has found a way to deter Israel from nearby. It’s a convenient playground for Tehran.

On the Syrian side, the big offensive Assad announced in the south, in the Dara’a region, seems to be proceeding sluggishly. Around 2,000 Hezbollah operatives and Iranian advisers haven't injected the momentum that would send the rebels scrambling.

Meanwhile, smaller-scale fighting continues on the fringes of the areas taken over by the Sunni rebels near the Israeli border. The Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah are concerned about the connection they see forming between rebel groups and Israel, so they’re trying to label it an alliance between Israel and the Al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

Hezbollah says Israel is abetting the deployment of Al-Qaida rebels along the border while bombing Hezbollah vehicles that approach the frontier in the Golan. Hezbollah spokesmen somehow avoid mentioning that until the January 18 attack, Iran and Hezbollah both adamantly denied all allegations about their presence on the Syrian side of the border.

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