Even before Saturday’s dramatic events across the Israeli-Syrian border, there were legitimate questions about the degree of American engagement to help Israel manage the increasingly complex challenges it faces to the north.
A visit to the region by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, upon which he embarked this weekend, has a chance to change that, to the benefit of both U.S. and Israeli interests.
The U.S. focus in Syria has been to complete the defeat of ISIS in central and eastern Syria, provide support for Kurdish and Sunni allies in preventing an ISIS resurgence, and, to a degree, stemming an Iranian or Syrian-regime advance into areas formerly under ISIS control. The tools to effect these goals are limited: primarily 2,000 American troops, support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, and USAID-led stabilization efforts.
Much less American attention has been directed at preventing the establishment of Iranian military facilities in Syria that could be used to launch attacks against Israel. An agreement intended to keep Iranian and Iranian-backed elements from approaching the Israeli border has no enforcement mechanism, and visitors to Israeli observation posts in the Golan Heights can look into Syria and see it observed in the breach.
One reason for that lack of emphasis has been Israel’s effectiveness in addressing these threats by itself.
Nearly 100 times over the past five years, according to former Israeli Air Force Commander Major General (ret.) Amir Eshel, Israel has struck at targets in Syria, primarily Iranian weapons shipments destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the past six months, this campaign has been more openly acknowledged and more directed at actual Iranian assets inside Syria.
The Trump Administration’s policy, much like the Obama Administration’s, has been to support Israel’s freedom of action to carry out such strikes. Neither Administration has deemed it desirable to engage in military action directly in such cases, and, in fairness, Israel has sought no such American role.
Now, with yesterday’s penetration of Israeli airspace by an Iranian UAV, a serious escalation, the United States needs to upgrade its involvement.
Israel responded to the incursion with strikes on multiple Syrian and Iranian targets, losing an F-16 to heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Thankfully, the plane went down in Israeli territory with its crew members wounded, but alive. But it was the first Israeli fighter aircraft downed in combat in decades, and the prospect that it could have gone down in Syria, and its crew captured or worse, tells us how close we were to a far more dangerous event.
As it happens, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is about to embark on a tour of Middle East capitals. It is a perfect opportunity to stop in Israel, coordinate substantive policy and strategic messaging with the Prime Minister, and execute a joint U.S.-Israeli strategy on other stops. Many Secretaries of State have done exactly that during similar moments of crisis.
But oddly, Israel does not appear on the itinerary. Tillerson’s stops include Amman, Ankara, Cairo, Kuwait City, and Beirut, but not Jerusalem. That made little sense before the Iranian incursion yesterday. It would be malpractice now. The Secretary needs to come to Israel.
The substantive objective would be to ensure that Israel and the United States are on the same page regarding threats from Syria and Lebanon. Since the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Israel’s policy has been to prepare for the next conflict with Hezbollah, which, in light of Hezbollah’s massive build-up of missiles and rockets aimed at Israel, appears inevitable, but to seek to postpone that conflict as long as possible.
But several new elements complicate that calculus. One is, as noted, Iran’s increasingly aggressive push to insert weapons and personnel, both Iranian and Shia militia, at key locations in Syria to enable direct attacks on Israel. The base that the Iranian UAV flew from yesterday, which Israel struck later in the day, is one such facility.
A second factor is the prospect that Hezbollah, under Iranian sponsorship, will establish production lines for precision-guided missiles in Lebanon. These weapons, which, in the next war, could pose a direct threat to critical Israeli targets like the Defense Ministry, airfields, and power plants, have been the primary focus of Israeli strikes on shipments from Syria to Lebanon.
The prospect of a domestic production capability in Lebanon might cause Israel to recalculate whether it can afford to wait, or whether it must destroy those facilities in Lebanon sooner, potentially igniting a broader conflict.
Third, the role of Russia as a sponsor and protector of the Assad regime and an ally of Iran complicates Israeli strategy and even operations, but also presents opportunities to engage Russia to impose restraints on Iranian behavior.
Tillerson and Prime Minister Netanyahu need to try to reach agreement on the U.S. diplomatic support for Israel’s ability to defend itself, chiefly by reinforcing Netanyahu’s own conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Secretary would be well-advised to add one additional capital to the end of his itinerary: Moscow.
But Tillerson can also use his regional stops to seek support from other leaders, so the Russians, who are active throughout the Middle East, hear from a chorus of voices about the importance of reining in Iranian aggression before it produces a destabilizing war that no one wants — and Russia should not want either.
Beirut may be Tillerson’s most important stop of all. Hezbollah, while a wholly-owned Iranian proxy, is also a player in Lebanese politics. As such, it is not immune from considerations about its standing with the Lebanese public, even beyond its Shia base. Some clear messages from Tillerson to his Lebanese hosts about the risks posed to Lebanon’s infrastructure and population, where Hezbollah has embedded itself, if Iranian and Hezbollah threats against Israel trigger a full-scale war, could reinforce Israel’s deterrence.
In the event of war, the United States will inevitably seek to lead the diplomacy to bring it to an end after Hezbollah has been dealt a decisive blow. But there will be immense suffering on both sides before it is through.
Players throughout the Middle East watch for symbols. President Trump’s and Vice President Pence’s visits to Israel conveyed strong support and friendship, and the lead White House role in managing this relationship.
But the Secretary of State arriving at a moment of crisis demonstrates something else: Detailed coordination and determined vigilance by American and Israeli allies to jointly confront and deter real-time threats.
And just as clearly, his absence - as he lands in capitals all around Israel - would tell the region that against Iran in Syria, Israel is on its own.
Daniel B. Shapiro is Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa, in the Obama Administration. Twitter: @DanielBShapiro