Opinion |

How Netanyahu Saved Assad, Helped Russia and Gave Iran the Run of Syria

As Assad consolidates power, Israel's prime minister is basking in plaudits for his 'prescient' strategy on Syria. But Netanyahu has been played - exposing Israel to potentially disastrous consequences

Kyle Orton
Kyle Orton
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A Syrian woman walks past a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Bab Tuma in the old city of Damascus. March 14, 2019
A Syrian woman walks past a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Bab Tuma in the old city of Damascus. March 14, 2019Credit: AFP
Kyle Orton
Kyle Orton

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As the regime of Bashar Assad appears to be consolidating in Syria, many Israelis have concluded that their government’s handling of the crisis was generally laudable.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 21Credit: Haaretz

The most comprehensive statement of this view was given recently in Haaretz by Anshel Pfeffer (Netanyahu Outfoxed Russia, Iran and ISIS With His Cynical, Ruthless Syria Policy.) Every aspect of this is open to question.

Clearly Pfeffer is no apologist for the Israeli government, and Haaretz no government mouthpiece, which is what makes his case all the more important - and worrying. Pfeffer states outright that for him "complimenting [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu…on the eve of an election…is hardly an easy thing to do."

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Pfeffer credits Netanyahu for getting four big things right in Syria: avoiding entanglement in the contest between the Assad regime and the rebellion, recognizing the Islamic State as a menace and preventing terrorist infiltration, containing and deterring Iran, and deftly handling the Russians.

In truth, Netanyahu, far from having orchestrated a genius-level strategy, has exposed Israel up to potentially disastrous consequences.

Let’s examine each of these contentions in turn.

Pfeffer praised Netanyahu for his double scepticism: that the "Arab spring" revolt could unseat Assad, and that his downfall would be beneficial to Israel. When "[s]ome Western leaders supported shipping advanced weapons to the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups in Syria, Netanyahu counseled caution," Pfeffer says.

ISIS fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, Syria June 30, 2014Credit: \ STRINGER/ REUTERS

This reluctance to help the Syrian opposition was "prescient," since these weapons could have fallen into the hands of ISIS. Netanyahu "was one of the first leaders to identify the significance of the rise of Islamic State in the power vacuum that had been created in Syria and Iraq."

First, this account gets the timeline and causality all wrong. The "vacuum" that ISIS crept into was opened up because the Assad regime - supported by Iran and Russia - created it, deliberately bombing and destabilizing rebel areas, while leaving ISIS to grow and even helping to foster it and similar jihadist groups.

Among other things, Assad released Islamist militants from prison at the outset to try to divide and discredit the uprising, and by 2017 oil and gas sales to the regime were ISIS’s largest source of revenue, above even the "taxes" the terrorists had been taking from the population under its control. It was keeping Assad in place that helped ISIS grow.

Moreover, ISIS and other extremist groups never lacked for the heavy weapons - like surface-to-air missiles - that Netanyahu helped prevent the mainstream rebels acquiring. The extremists could simply use their better sources of funding to buy the weapons from Assad himself, so corrupt was and is his regime. Only the mainstream rebels, whose so-called supporters offered words of encouragement and very little else, struggled for resources.

Syrian citizens searching for bodies in the rubble of damaged buildings that were attacked by Syrian regime airstrikes, in the al-Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria. April 7, 2013Credit: AP

Had proper and sufficient weaponry been supplied to the mainstream opposition in time to complete the revolution, it might have forestalled the rise of ISIS altogether in Syria, and would have at a minimum bettered the odds of the least-worst forces, from Israel’s perspective, when the rebellion went to war with ISIS - and found itself simultaneously being attacked by the Assad regime, which provided de facto air support to the jihadists. (Russia took over these tactics later to help further the narrative of a binary choice in Syria: the dictator or the terrorists).

Pfeffer says that while Netanyahu was right to remain on the "sidelines" of the underlying war in Syria - the rebels against Assad - this did not "mean he shied away from acting in Syria, quite the opposite." Netanyahu drew and enforced clear red lines against the Iranians, says Pfeffer, attacking the aid convoys to Hezbollah, the Islamic Republican Guards Corps (IRGC) bases - indeed blocking the formation of "permanent bases" by Iran - and even killing IRGC commanders like Jihad Mughniyeh when necessary.

But Netanyahu did get involved in the main Syrian war, albeit incoherently, by initially putting his thumb on the scale against American anti-Assad actions (not that Barack Obama needed much encouragement) and then, belatedly, providing support for opposition groups.

The Israeli-supported rebels provided a buffer against Iran and ISIS in the southern Syrian provinces of Deraa and Qunaytra (the Golan Heights) that border Israel. In July 2018, Netanyahu got played by the Russians into letting Deraa fall to Iranian-controlled forces. The goodwill Israel had built up by providing Syrians with food, medical care, and the means to protect themselves was pointlessly squandered, and Israel’s assets were co-opted by Hizbollah.

Beyond that, even in the coldest "realist" terms, as defined by Netanyahu himself, the fall of Deraa was a disaster. As Pfeffer notes, "Netanyahu always saw Iran as a much bigger threat than ISIS," yet he facilitated the replacement of the ISIS pocket with IRGC-run militias. The harvest is already before us, with Hezbollah terrorist cells organizing for cross-border attacks into Israel from Syria.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, speaks with Syrian President Bashar Assad during their meeting in Tehran, Iran. Feb. 25, 2019Credit: enei.ir,AP

The story Pfeffer tells about Netanyahu’s "timely, effective" action against Iran in Syria echoes what was said when Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot resigned in January this year. Like Pfeffer, Eisenkot identified the Iranian drive for a permanent position in Syria as having begun in 2017 - five years after Iran’s decisive intervention with thousands of IRGC-controlled ground forces. By now, Iran’s social and military power is woven into the fabric of Syria, positioned to outlast Assad.

In other words, Iran has a position in Syria that is as permanent as it gets. And this is not surprising: Eisenkot said clearly that Israel largely did not even intend to eliminate the IRGC operatives who are key to Iran’s project in Syria. Eisenkot’s reasoning was that Israel could disrupt Iran’s project by striking at infrastructure, and not killing Iranian personnel would avoid provoking Iranian retaliation.

There are several problems with this. One is that, in the execution, Israel has vastly exaggerated both the scale of its operations in Syria, as well as their efficacy. But more serious is the conceptual problem: it is personnel who do the networking and ideological dissemination that entrenches Iran’s influence, so putting them off-limits is an error. Moreover, even on its own terms, Eisenkot’s argument has hit diminishing returns, with Iran sending armed drones into Israel from Syria.

Which brings us to the Russia component.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands in Moscow, Russia. January 29, 2018Credit: \ MAXIM SHEMETOV / REUTERS

Pfeffer regards Netanyahu’s approach to Russia as perhaps his greatest success. Soon after the Russians openly intervened in Syria in September 2015, Bibi established "ground rules" with Vladimir Putin, preserving Israel’s freedom of action because he shrewdly "understood that Putin had no interest in helping Iran, just in ensuring his client Assad survived," and that only Israel could threaten that. The Israeli security guarantee to Assad meant Russia continued "standing back, allowing Israel to conduct its business in Syria," regarding this as a worthwhile trade.

As events in Deraa outlined above suggest, the Kremlin has grievously damaged Israel’s interests in Syria, yet still Netanyahu turned up in Moscow as recently as February praising Putin’s cooperativeness. Indeed, he was back there again last Thursday, lauding Putin as "my friend" and thanking the Russian ruler for "everything you have done" for Israel.

American policy in Syria has left Israel exposed many threats, Russian power among them, in a manner not dissimilar to what has happened to Turkey. But it does not follow that Israel (or Turkey) are thereby obligated to embrace Moscow.

This is not a moralistic point. Some Israeli commentators have portrayed Russia as a quasi-neutral arbiter between Israel and Iran, and the notion that Russia is or can be helpful to Israel in Syria is very widespread. But it is dangerously mistaken, based on an illusion - actually, two illusions.

The first illusion is that there is meaningful distance between Russian and Iranian aims in Syria, and this gap means Russia is willing to assist Israel in certain ways.

An Iranian Revolutionary Guards officer, with Israel flag drawn on his boots, at a graduation ceremony for military cadets. Tehran, Iran. June 30, 2018Credit: \ Tasnim News Agency/ REUTERS

Whatever Russian officials say to Israelis in private meetings about their Iranian partners - and it can hardly be worse than what the Russians have said in public about Assad - Iran and Russia are strategically bound to one-another: Assad’s battered regime would have collapsed without the de facto takeover of its security and other sectors by Iran, and Russia has no influence inside Syria in the absence of these Iranian-led ground forces.

Which leads to the second illusion: that Russia can help Israel. The weakness of Moscow’s position makes it useless to Israel, even if it wanted to help. This is not a secret. The Russians have said publicly that they cannot get Iran out of Syria, and Netanyahu says that Putin reiterated the same thing to him personally last November. The assumption of a capable Russia has led to the belief that Moscow "allows" Israel to act in Syria.

The reality is that Russia has simply been unable to prevent Israeli attacks - up to now. Iran is digging in and stockpiling missiles all around the Jewish state, with Russia’s full cooperation, extending from Syria to Lebanon to Gaza.

This Iranian deterrance capacity - the threat of attacks on Israeli population centres if Israel attacks Iranian assets in Syria or elsewhere - is building up under a Russian air defense network, which is also expanding. Absent what would now be a major conflict, Israel’s manoeuvrability will be further constricted over time.

The removal of Assad’s regime would take out the keystone of this Iranian-Russian imperium. Instead, Netanyahu has provided a security guarantee to Assad on the basis of a Russian bluff that has, in turn, guaranteed Iran’s position in the Levant.

Kyle Orton is a British researcher focused on Syria. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Telegraph, and other outlets. Twitter: @KyleWOrton

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