This Is Not a Drill: Syria Showdown Could Spark Israeli-Iranian and U.S.-Russian Clashes

Trump’s flippant threat to attack with 'nice' missiles highlights risk of war by miscalculation

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

This is not a drill, as Prime Minister Netanyahu made clear to his cabinet colleagues on Wednesday. The situation in Israel’s north is tense and explosive. After seven years of horrid civil war, Syria is turning into a confrontation zone between Israel and Iran, on the regional level, and Russia and the West, on the global level. The expected American retaliation for the chemical weapon attack carried out last weekend at Douma can start a chain reaction that could lead to escalation, if not conflagration.

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Russia’s tone has changed. Moscow has uncharacteristically and harshly chastised Israel for its bombing of the suspected Iranian installation in Syria’s T-4 air base near Palmyra. The Kremlin has unusually and pointedly warned the United States not to carry out a punitive raid against its client Syria, explicitly threatening to intercept U.S. missiles.

Such challenges, even if only meant as bluster, can easily turn into self-fulfilling ultimatums that obligate Vladimir Putin to act.

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American troops look toward the border with Turkey from a small outpost near the town of Manbij in northern Syria on February 7, 2018.Credit: Susannah George/AP

Iran hopes to capitalize on the newfound Russian bellicosity. Just as a diplomatic deal between Washington and Moscow on Syria’s future would necessarily include severe limitations on the Iranian presence in Syria, tensions if not open hostility between the two powers could provide a cover for Iran to accelerate its efforts to entrench its forces and militias wherever possible. Putin’s natural inclination to rein in Iranian activities in Syria could be offset by his wish to poke Washington in the eye in response to a possible U.S. strike on Syria. And Tehran, one assumes, would be delighted to provoke an Israeli-Russian confrontation.

Israel, for its part, has stated and restated that Iranian expansion into Syria is a red line that should not be crossed. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel would act against Iranian infringements, as it reportedly has in the bombing of T-4, “no matter what the price.” Netanyahu is certainly wary of exacerbating tensions with Moscow but is unlikely to back away from his defense minister’s threats. And in a faceoff between Putin and Donald Trump, Netanyahu will no doubt side with the latter and thus potentially infuriate the former. Future Israeli incursions into Syria could very well meet a far more dangerous Russian response.

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Syrian President Assad should be the last person interested in turning Syria into a battleground for outside powers. He is about to emerge victorious from a deadly 7-year challenge that was supposed to finish him off, and to start rebuilding his country and reconsolidating his grip on power. Then again, Assad may no longer be the restrained and calculating leader he was thought to be before he managed to turn the tables on his formidable adversaries. His alleged decision to launch a major chemical attack, which he must have known would lead to international outrage - in a region that was about to fall to his forces anyway - may indicate that Assad’s triumph has gone to his head.

Turkey is its own basket case. Ankara detests Assad and is also opposed to Iranian expansion, but its overriding interest is to contain and control rebellious Kurds in northern Syria and western Iraq. To this end, Turkish leader Tayip Erdogan has cultivated ties to Putin, despite their apparently conflicting objectives and interests in Syria. If hostilities break out, Turkey could find itself caught in the crossfire, even if it is simply trying to sit on the fence while whacking the Kurds when no one is looking.

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Which brings us to the known unknown, Donald Trump, the joker in the pack. His statements and tweets leave no doubt that the U.S. intends to strike Syria very soon, with or without allies. Trump and his advisers certainly view the nerve gas attack at Douma as a direct challenge and provocation to the United States that mandates a forceful response. Suspicious minds in Washington are also concerned, however, that Trump might use the cover of tensions with Syria, Iran and Russia to carry out his long sought goal of dismissing Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a wish made doubly fervent by the recent FBI raid on the offices of his lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen. Trump’s flippant and arrogant Wednesday morning challenge to Moscow – “Get ready Russia, because [the missiles] will be coming, nice and new and “smart!””| - does not inspire confidence in the ability of the leader of the Western world to navigate the treacherous minefield awaiting him with discretion and cool-headedness.

The brink is just around the corner, as British Prime Minister Theresa May well knows. She has reportedly demanded positive proof that it was Assad’s forces that carried out the chemical attack; if the report is true, it means that Western intelligence agencies do not possess that kind of certainty yet. May’s hesitation may reflect her reluctance to get involved in a Middle East melee while still dealing with the aftermath of the alleged nerve gas attack carried out by Russia against former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, but her demand for unequivocal proof is well warranted. Everyone remembers the last time America went to war in the Middle East on the basis of a false premise.

The myriad forces and actors, which include groups such as Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, ISIS and even Hamas, are gearing up for action. Tensions are rising, and the brink is clearly just ahead. With so many conflicting and converging interests coming into play at the same time, it’s not clear that the main players can still step back, on the assumption that they even want to. Iran, Syria and their terrorist clients certainly need to be taught a lesson and held at bay, but future historians might still portray the events of recent days as a march of folly, the inexorable deterioration of a tense situation into a war that all its participants will come to regret.

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