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In Syria, U.S. Focuses on ISIS While Israel Eyes Iran

Trump is preoccupied with terror against the West, Netanyahu and the IDF with the prospect of an Iranian corridor from Tehran to Beirut

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Smoke billows following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa early on June 9, 2017.
Smoke billows following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa early on June 9, 2017.Credit: MOHAMAD ABAZEED/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In the eastern part of Syria, relatively far from Israel’s borders, a race against time is underway. The clashing camps are fighting over the plunder left behind by ISIS fighters as they flee to the enclave around the city of Raqqa, the “capital” of the caliphate that ISIS declared only three years ago. In the district named after the city of Deir el-Zour, and especially at the nearby border crossings into Iraq (but also south and west of there, toward Jordan), both the Assad regime, assisted by the Iranians and Shi’ite militias, and rebel groups supported by the United States want to retake control.

Deir el-Zour itself has passed back and forth between ISIS and the Assad regime throughout the civil war. On Sunday, Iran attacked the area with seven missiles, five of which completely missed their target. The assault was in response to a double terror attack perpetrated by ISIS in Tehran on June 7. If the name Deir el-Zour says something to the Israeli pubic, it’s apparently associated with a mysterious aerial assault in the area on September 2007. In recent weeks prisoner Ehud Olmert – the prime minister who ordered the assault on the Syrian nuclear facility, as U.S. President George W. Bush wrote in his memoir – has been suffering from extraordinary, gratuitous government harassment over a dispute regarding the description of classified events that appear in the manuscript of Olmert’s autobiography.

While U.S.-backed Kurdish and Sunni forces are advancing toward the battle at Raqqa, the United States shot down a Syrian plane and two Iranian-made drones, apparently operated by Hezbollah. The incidents, the first of their kind, occurred when the aircraft came dangerously close to the rebels who are accompanied by American army advisers and special forces. This is a typical American approach: There’s one mission right now – defeating ISIS – and anyone who gets in their way or endangers their forces will pay, without a second thought. Shooting down the aircraft drew angry condemnation from Moscow. The Russians didn’t bother to respond in the same way when Iran fired its missiles at that area.

Iran’s message to the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, was clear: We are here. Iran’s belligerent tone is backed up by action on the ground, movement of Shi’ite militias on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border, which, according to Israeli and American intelligence, is part of the attempt to establish a corridor from Tehran to Beirut under Iranian influence.

The United States is still deciding how to respond to Iran’s increased display of self-confidence. According to reports from Washington, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are trying to persuade President Donald Trump to take a stronger stand, in actions and not only declarations.

According to Israel’s analysis, Trump is still focused mainly on the fight against ISIS, in which he identifies the danger of terror attacks on the West. The president is also aware of the potential for relatively quick military achievements at a time when he is having trouble gaining initial successes in foreign policy. Iran is a more complex challenge; what’s more, a clash with Iran could mean more tension with the Russians.

The more forceful line that Saudi Arabia is taking to halt Iranian influence also has to do with the strengthened position of Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who this week was officially declared the Saudi crown prince. The first party to be injured by Saudi assertiveness is Qatar, which Riyadh continues to besiege, demanding that Qatar break ties with Shi’ite Iran on the one hand and with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood on the other. This week, Saudi Arabia reiterated its demand that Qatar cut itself off from Hamas as well. This is bad news for the Gaza Strip, which is struggling with an electric power crisis while the Hamas government loses its last source of support in the Arab world.

The Jafari vision

Israel, like its close partner Jordan, is worried about the consequences of an Assad regime gradually achieving victory over the rebels. That would also be a victory for Iran and Hezbollah, and might bring militias associated with Tehran close to the border with Jordan and with Israel on the Golan Heights. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said this week in a speech at the Herzliya Conference that Iran’s ideological aspiration is to achieve the “Jafari vision,” a reference to the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Ali Jafari: creation of worldwide Islamic rule.

This vision is rather far from fulfillment, but in Eisenkot’s speech, Iran appeared as the region’s No. 1 problem: a powerful state that aspires to expand its influence and is constantly arming Israel’s main immediate enemy, Hezbollah. Eisenkot reminded his listeners of the internal strife in Iran between moderates and conservatives. The world, he said, has to save Iran from itself. Defeating ISIS is important, but so is distancing Jafari and his forces from Syria. Iran is the problem, not the solution.

Eisenkot’s position on Iran would have satisfied even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Foreigners at the conference wondered about the gap between Eisenkot’s speech and that of his predecessor, Benny Gantz, at the Herzliya Conference a few years ago. At that time it seemed Gantz was trying very hard to present a restrained opinion about Iran, compared to the prime minister’s tough warnings.

There is a clear explanation for the change. Gantz was speaking at the height of a dispute between the defense establishment and Netanyahu over an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. It was important for him, publicly as well, to refrain from escalation in statements about Iran. In that dispute, Eisenkot took exactly the same stand as Gantz. The Vienna Conference, which stopped the Iranian nuclear program for the years ahead, is a done deal. In fact, neither Netanyahu nor Trump is working to dismantle it. Under these circumstances, the government and the security establishment are on the same page. Iran’s regional subversiveness is a key threat, and that is what must be worked against.

In the Palestinian arena, Eisenkot defended the cabinet decision not to intervene in the electricity crisis in the Gaza Strip between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Israel, he said, has an interest in Gaza having full electric power, but it is an insoluble paradox that Israel is required to transfer funds for the electricity while Hamas diverts economic resources to building attack tunnels against Israel. Hamas, he said, will need to decide soon whether it is a responsible government or a terrorist group. He also insisted that his decision not to impose collective punishment in the West Bank during the wave of terror that began in October 2015 was the right policy. “The Pavlovian tendency to impose closures and stop people going out to work did not help,” he said. He went as far as to call it “bad advice,” a veiled reference to the government, some of whose ministers demanded such steps, which were not implemented due to the army’s objection.

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