Analysis

Israel, Russia Discuss Pushing Iran Back From Syria's Border and Assad's Return to Area

Israel sees an opportunity to push the Iranians away from the Syria border without risking war with them and Hezbollah

Missile fire is seen over Daraa, Syria, May 10, 2018.
\ ALAA AL-FAQIR/ REUTERS

The events in Syria, and efforts by Israel to curb the establishment of an Iranian military presence there, still top the list of priorities here. Gaza is seen as a secondary arena, one that must be contained and restrained while the more pressing problem is addressed.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the Gaza cease-fire was attained, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman left for a short visit to Moscow. At a meeting on Thursday afternoon with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, he discussed the reduction of the Iranian presence in Syria.

Lieberman was optimistic this week regarding the chances of moving the Iranians and the Shi’ite militias they bankroll further back from their border with Israel in the Golan Heights. This realistic expectation apparently has to do with changes in southern Syria, in keeping with the earlier agreement to reduce friction in the region, signed by the United States, Russia and Jordan last November.

It is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is insisting on raising the threshold of demands. On Wednesday, at the annual memorial for those killed on the Irgun arms ship Altalena in 1948, he said that Israel would continue to act against Iranian encroachment, “not only opposite the Golan Heights but everywhere in Syria.” Netanyahu’s reasoning, expressed in closed-door conversations with foreign leaders, hinges on the dangers that in his opinion could arise from the deployment of Iranian long-range missiles deep within Syrian territory. Such missiles, he believes, would enable Iran to open an additional front against Israel during a future war, in addition to the threat posed by Hezbollah’s large arsenal of missiles in Lebanon.

Would an agreement on pushing the Iranians away from Israel’s border with Syria also include the return of the Assad regime to that area? Four years ago, rebels pushed pro-Assad forces back from the entire border zone, except for a small area on the slopes of Mt. Hermon on the Syrian side. Local forces identified with ISIS still control an enclave in the southern Golan Heights, near the three-way border with Jordan. In the past year, Israeli intelligence has raised the possibility of a renewed attack on those forces by the regime and its supporters in a bid to control the entire Syrian Golan region. So far, this scenario has not been realized, partly due to Israeli opposition and partly because Assad has had more urgent missions to contend with, such as fighting the rebels in Idlib, in northern Syria.

Over time, Israel has tightened its connections Syrians near the border, offering significant humanitarian aid (including food and medication, as well as medical treatment in Israel) to people living and, according to foreign reports, has also equipped them with arms and ammunition. However, the various sides apparently understand that this is a temporary alliance, the stability of which will be influenced by broader considerations. No one will send in Israeli soldiers to save these villages from the return of the regime. It is more reasonable to assume that agreements on compromise and capitulation would be reached with the rebels if the Syrian army in fact returns to the border.

Preliminary details from Lieberman's meeting with Shoygu and a phone call Netanyahu held on Thursday evening with Russian President Vladimir Putin suggest a possibility that Israel will indeed give silent consent for Assad's return to the border. The possibility that the Iranians and the militias will pull away east of the Damascus-Suwayda road, some 70 kilometers from the Israeli border, was discussed in the talks.

Israel now sees a window of opportunity up north for distancing the Iranians without the situation devolving into a war against them and Hezbollah. Not all of Israel’s neighbors are equally optimistic. Not long ago, Cyprus, in conjunction with the EU, dedicated a new center for crisis management. The first large-scale exercise was held at the compound last month, with the participation of delegates from 18 countries (Israel was defined as an observer state). The scenario for the exercise imagined a mass evacuation of Western citizens from Lebanon via Cyprus during a war. Those who planned the exercise were able to base this scenario on reality: It is exactly what happened in 2006, during the latest war between Israel and Hezbollah.