Analysis

Israel’s Slow Creep Into the Syrian Civil War

Involvement in the coordination of cease-fire zones along with military dialogue with Russia, make Israel a partner in strategic decision-making on Syria

Israeli soldiers take part in an exercise in the Golan Heights, near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, March 20, 2017.
BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

“We’re working productively with Jordan, as we are working with Israel, and I’m not hiding anything from you,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu told his country’s parliament late last month. Shoygu even noted his “productive talks” with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, with whom he speaks on the phone regularly. Arab media outlets report on continuous communication between Russian and Israeli fighter pilots, who coordinate planned flights, just as Israel coordinates its aerial and other actions in Syria with Russian command headquarters.

The “other actions” include Israel’s shipments of humanitarian and military aid to the militias operating in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, and in the Daraa area nearby. An intense battle has been underway in recent weeks in Daraa as the Syrian army tries to advance with Shi’ite militias and Iranian-backed Hezbollah to suppress the rebels. These efforts are at the heart of coordination talks between Jordan, Russia, the United States and Saudi Arabia. In some of the talks that took place in Jordan, Israelis were on hand, and in other cases coordination was by phone or through emissaries who visited Israel.

The battle in Daraa is part of the plan to establish “de-escalation zones,” which will be no-fly zones for Syrian military aircraft, where cease-fires will prevail and Syrian refugees will be able to live without fear. Last month four such zones were agreed on, but technical details have kept them from being set up. These details involve disagreement on the zones’ borders, who will monitor them and who will secure passage between them.

Israel, which made clear to Russia that it opposes the participation of Shi’ite militias in monitoring the southern de-escalation zone near Daraa, has found allies in Jordan and Washington. They pressured Russia to agree to the demand and deploy Russian troops as part of securing the southern zone. The assumption is that Russia, which promised Israel it would keep out pro-Iranian forces, and adhered to Washington’s thunderous objection, will agree at least temporarily not to involve the Syrian army in monitoring these zones.

Thus Russia also neutralized Turkish and Iranian demands to take part in the monitoring. Turkey even threatened that if disagreement persisted on the monitoring, it would establish its own de-escalation zone around the city of Idlib, where most of the rebel forces are concentrated. This would prevent Syrian Kurds from taking over the north.

Iran, for its part, withdrew its demand to take part directly or through the militias it backs, and apparently, at least in the Daraa area, Israel doesn’t have to worry. But that’s not the end of Israel’s and Jordan’s worries.

Russia, Iran and Turkey at the table

The establishment of the de-escalation zones is just one phase, albeit an essential one, in the long process that will start in early July: Officials from Russia, Turkey and Iran will meet in the Kazakh capital Astana to sketch the zones’ outlines. The United States and Israel have no standing at this conference; its outcome will depend on the willingness of Iran and Turkey to settle their differences, especially regarding passage between the zones.

Representatives of the Syrian opposition meet with the UN special envoy to Syria, Geneva, May 2017.
Fabrice Coffrini / AP

Everyone realizes that control of the passages will decide the fate of the zones as safe havens for refugees and delivering humanitarian aid, as well as the possibility to connect these areas with Syrian areas under the control of the regime or the rebels. If an agreement is reached, the discussions will move to the first summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, who are set to meet in Hamburg on July 7 and 8.

So far, the Americans haven’t presented a clear doctrine regarding the Syrian crisis, and it’s unclear how much the decline in the relationship between the two leaders will influence their ability to reach an agreement on Syria’s future. Still, Russia has important partners for its vision of Syria’s future. Over the past year, Turkey has come closer to Moscow’s position on Syrian President Bashar Assad and now no longer opposes his remaining in power, at least until a new Syrian government is established and elections are held.

Last week, in a surprise move, France joined the positions of Russia and Iran when President Emmanuel Macron said that for now he sees no alternative to Assad that would prevent Syria from becoming a failed state. Absent a strong American position, the assumption is that Trump doesn’t really care who heads the Syrian regime as long as he cooperates in the war against the Islamic State.

That would hold true even if it comes at the price of Iran’s strengthening its position in Syria, as long as the border between Israel and Syria remains clear of Iranians and their proxies. It’s more important for Trump to renew aerial coordination with Russia, whose absence will impair the battle against the Islamic State, while American and Russian jets could clash amid the Russian threat to consider hostile any plane flying west of the Euphrates. If the two leaders can reach new understandings in this area, it could pave the way to another Geneva conference, which is being initiated by the UN emissary Staffan de Mistura, where the Syrian regime will speak with the rebels.

The desired goal of such a conference is a total cease-fire followed by the establishment of a provisional government that would prepare for elections and launch work on a new constitution. Still, colonizing Mars seems closer than implementing political goals in Syria. Thus the importance of establishing a security zone in Daraa: Russia will be tested over whether it can meet its obligation to keep out the Syrian militias and regime forces, allowing “de-escalated” life to go on.

The Jordanian “operations room”

But not only Russia will be tested. At least two groups of militias are operating in Daraa. One is supported by the Jordanian “operations room” in cooperating with the United States and Saudi Arabia, which are training and funding militias including the Free Syrian Army. The other is a hodgepodge of units of the Free Syrian Army that defected from the first group and radical Islamic organizations including the Al-Qaida-linked group formerly known as the Nusra Front.

These groups don’t consider themselves obligated to follow the directives of the “operations room” in Jordan, and they conduct independent operations to preserve their strength and status in and around Daraa, sometimes clashing with other militias. Some of these organizations aren’t partners in the coalition of rebel groups recognized by the major powers and legitimate representatives of the opposition; they’ve therefore not taken part in conferences and won’t take part in the one scheduled for July. So there’s no guarantee that these militias will recognize any agreement made in Astana or Geneva.

These militias could form a front of their own against Russian monitoring forces that could develop into a military confrontation. This in turn could ignite the border between Israel, Jordan and Syria. In an extreme scenario, this border could become hostage to battles in southern Syria, making it impossible for Israel or Jordan to respond militarily as long as Russian forces are working against such a front.

This is where Israeli strategy, which has depended so far on secret cooperation with some of the militias, could crash. The main goal of such cooperation has been to monitor the situation, but also to prevent, as far as possible, the entry of pro-Iranian militias into the area. Under these circumstances, Israel might have to cooperate with Russia, even at the expense of cooperation with “its own” militias.

At the beginning of the civil war, Israel’s policy was not to interfere except to attack weapons convoys intended for Hezbollah. It now finds itself creeping toward the Syrian arena, and not only tactically, to collect intelligence about the Syrian side of the border. As a partner in coordinating operations in Jordan to keep Iranian forces away from the border, it has become a partner in strategic decision-making in the Syrian civil war.