Analysis

With Iran Nuke Deal Hanging by a Thread, Israel Feels Syria's Skies Are Open

Israel believes Iran and Russia will not retaliate to avoid the blame from a U.S. exit from the agreement. If Israel targets Assad's regime, this could all change

Structure allegedly attacked overnight in Aleppo, Syria. April 30, 2018
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U.S. President Donald Trump’s delaying of his decision on whether the United States will pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement or abide by it has, presumably, opened a window of opportunity for Israel. The timing and intensity of the attacks attributed to Israel on Syrian territory attest to Israel’s assumption that Iran will not react so long as the nuclear agreement is hanging by a thread.

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That’s the reason for Israel’s feeling that it has wide open skies in Syria, since both Iran and Russia will grit their teeth and restrain themselves, knowing that a military response to the Israeli attacks from Syrian territory would saddle them with the responsibility for America’s withdrawal from the agreement. The information provided by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday out of tens of thousands of documents is nothing new. Another working assumption is that Israel has succeeded in accusing Iran of exclusive responsibility for the arms shipments and construction of missile bases, thereby absolving Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia of all blame and responsibility – so Israel is not yet required to clash with Russian interests in Syria.

>> Israel told U.S. and Russia it will retaliate if Iran attacks from SyriaWhat happens if Trump pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal? ■ Strike likely targeted surface-to-surface missiles Iran seeks to deploy in Syria

Without the consent of Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iran clearly would not have been able to build bases or transfer weapons. Assad has already proven his ability to withhold economic development agreements from Iran. He dictates to Iran (with Russia’s consent and assistance) where its forces can situate themselves and on which fronts they will operate. Russia has a vital interest in the continued rule of Assad, who more than anything else symbolizes Russia’s success at controlling diplomatic moves in the embattled country, and not only the military campaign.

Despite that, Assad is not in Israel’s sights, not only due to the Russian veto on Israel’s hitting the presidential palace and its inhabitants, but because Israel sees Assad’s rule, in the absence of any other realistic alternative, as a guarantee of a quiet border with Syria even after the war in the north ends. Therefore, Israel’s political leaders and top military brass are refraining from mentioning Assad as the one responsible for Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, or even as a partner to it – and not only to avoid direct diplomatic conflict with Russia.

But the exemption that Israel is granting Assad, as opposed to the responsibility it imposes on the Lebanese government for all of Hezbollah’s actions against Israel, and its threats to bomb Lebanon back to the Stone Age, also serve Iran well. Despite the differences of opinion between Iran on the one hand and Russia and Turkey on the other regarding the area of its activity and its roles in Syria, Iran can find shelter in the shadow of Assad and Russia, as long as there is understanding and coordination between Russia and Israel

Although Iranian forces are being attacked in Syria, there is no damage to Iran’s strategic goal: a permanent foothold in Syria and a direct overland connection with Lebanon. This is also a convenient situation for Russia, which frames Israeli activity as a bilateral struggle between Israel and Iran, in which Russia plays the role of a linesman at most, which doesn’t require it to come into conflict with Israel to protect Iran. In addition, Israeli activity against Iran is not in contradiction to the Russian interest in reducing the scope of Iranian influence in Syria.

But the elasticity of these understandings is liable to stretch to breaking if Israel widens its radius of threats and includes the Assad regime; if the nuclear agreement that still constitutes a brake against an Iranian response falls apart, and if Russia decides that Israel is undermining its role as the party responsible for Syria’s integrity. Israel, as mentioned, has no interest at the moment in threatening Assad or questioning Russia’s exclusiveness in the Syrian arena.

Israel has still not made it clear why it prefers to fight against Iran, Hezbollah’s arms supplier, rather than against Hezbollah’s already existing stockpiles that are threatening this country from Lebanon. Israel apparently is satisfied at the moment with the balance of deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah, but is unwilling to establish an additional balance of deterrence vis-à-vis Iran in Syria, in order to avoid repeating what it defines as the mistake it made with Lebanon when it failed to prevent the military entrenchment of Hezbollah in south Lebanon after the Second Lebanon War.

The main question at the moment concerns Iran’s conduct after May 12, the date when the fate of the nuclear agreement will be decided. A Trump announcement that he is abandoning the agreement is not necessarily the end of the affair. The question then will be whether the European Union will join Trump or maintain the agreement without the United States.

Each one of these scenarios could influence Iran’s conduct toward Israel, which doesn’t depend only on its relationship with the signatories to the agreement, but on developments inside Iran as well. The country’s political and economic crisis encourages the view that Iran will not wish to expand its military activity in Syria, and even less to conduct an all-out war against Israel on its territory.

On the other hand, the political conflicts and economic hardships are themselves liable to lead to increased military activity, which would mobilize support for the regime in its war against the enemy, especially if the nuclear agreement evaporates and the Iranian regime believes that it is released from any commitment after the betrayal of the West.

In the face of uncertainty regarding the possible Iranian response, it’s important to remember that not all the diplomatic options for halting Iranian entrenchment in Syria have been exploited. Russia is likely to be a key player, and it has even put out feelers for reaching agreements between Iran and Israel, unsuccessfully so far. The EU countries, which also hold the fate of the nuclear agreement in their hands, could use their status as a brake in Syria, and even countries such as India and China, Iran’s clients, are likely to carry considerable weight in influencing Iran, because they will have to decide whether to join the U.S. policy or carry on as usual in their relations with Iran.