As I reported at the beginning of the week, Israel appears to be taking advantage of the twilight period between the two U.S. administrations to step up the pressure on Iran in Syria. Before dawn Wednesday, an airstrike attributed to Israel took place, the fourth in less than three weeks, this time in eastern Syria.
The targets were in the Deir el-Zour region and to a lesser extent near the Abu Kamal border crossing with Iraq. More than 10 targets were hit, including headquarters and Iranian weapons depots. The Deir el-Zour strike took place in a relatively densely populated urban area.
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The move looks like a renewed Israeli effort to disrupt Iran’s efforts to send weapons and Shi’ite militiamen via Iraq into eastern Syria. The raids also send a message to the whole region: Israel will continue to attack based on its operational needs, regardless of the transfer of power in the United States and the Biden administration’s intention to renew talks with Iran on the nuclear deal from which Trump's team withdrew in May 2018.
Advocates of the attacks say Iran is currently in a comparatively weak position in Syria and Iraq, making it possible to strike at its Achilles’ heel. They distinguish between what’s happening in this arena and the tension in the Persian Gulf, where the Iranians are following with concern the Americans’ moves and are apparently still a bit perturbed by the possibility that Donald Trump will order a parting blow against them.
In light of all this, some defense officials are uneasy about what they see as exaggerated Israeli activity that could trigger a miscalculation and then an explosion. Still hovering in the background is Iran’s unsettled account with the United States and Israel over the assassinations of senior Iranians over the past year.
In recent weeks, senior Israelis have been reassured by their colleagues in the Pentagon that Trump won’t set the Middle East alight before leaving office, and that even if he tries there will be people to stop him.
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Of particular interest was the highly unusual statement by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, at midweek. Milley condemned the January 6 assault by Trump supporters on Capitol Hill, promised that Joe Biden would become the commander-in-chief of the armed forces on January 20, and called on service members everywhere to “stay ready, keep your eyes on the horizon, and remain focused on the mission.”
That message can be interpreted as laying down a red line for future generations: The armed forces will dissociate themselves from any attempt to undermine American democracy. And maybe it can be seen as a more immediate signal: The U.S. armed services won’t be dragged into irresponsible moves by a president whose psychological stability is in doubt.
In the meantime, Biden is completing his top defense and diplomatic appointments, where one of the first issues will be the Iranian nuclear project. The veteran diplomat William Burns, whose appointment as next CIA chief was announced this week, is well known to the Israeli security and diplomatic hierarchy. Burns served as undersecretary of state when the nuclear accords were being drawn up. Part of his 2019 memoir, “The Back Channel,” is devoted to the negotiations with Iran.
The book suggests that Burns isn’t a great admirer of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he says tried to manipulate Barack Obama on the Iranian question. When the Americans opened a secret channel with the Iranians in the summer of 2012, through the mediation of Oman, Netanyahu learned of the move through intelligence channels and viewed it as a betrayal. The prime minister, Burns writes, maintained that the combination of sanctions and diplomacy wouldn’t be enough to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
According to Burns, Obama discerned Netanyahu’s clumsy efforts to manipulate him so that the United States would bomb the Iranians’ underground nuclear facility at Fordo – and the pressure achieved exactly the opposite of the intention. Burns reiterated this in a conversation with an Israeli friend a few years ago during the Trump presidency. He said Netanyahu still wants the United States to do the work instead of Israel: to bomb the nuclear facilities. But in the end, one way or another, we’ll have to return to talks on the agreement.
Burns’ appointment, like Biden’s other appointments of former Obama officials, leaves no room for doubt. Netanyahu will no longer enjoy the full freedom of action and maneuverability in Washington that he was allowed during the four years of the Trump administration.