A single brief statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday cleared up the strategic picture in southern Syria and the entire region. Three days after the signing of the agreement between Russia, the United States and Jordan about the cease-fire arrangements there, Lavrov disavowed the section of the accord that says foreign forces will be kept out of Syrian territory. Iran’s presence in Syria is legitimate, he said, and therefore Russia did not promise to compel the Iranians to withdraw their forces from the country.
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This claim by Moscow, which also applies to the Russian forces there, rests on Iran and Russia having been invited into Syria by the Assad regime. This invitation by the Syrian sovereign ostensibly bestows legitimacy on the presence of these countries’ military forces in Syria, even with Russia conveniently ignoring the ongoing atrocities the Assad regime has been committing against its own citizens for the past six and a half years.
The only thing the Russians agreed to was a stipulation that the Iranians and the Shi’ite militias that answer to them would be kept five kilometers from the lines of contact with the rebels. For Israel, this means that the Iranians will be on the Golan Heights, just five to 10 kilometers from the border, depending on what areas are held by the rebels. This is the reason for Israel’s disappointment with the agreement, a feeling that has only intensified in the wake of Lavrov’s statement.
The Russian foreign minister’s statement contained another hidden message: Moscow will be the one that decides what happens in Syria. The total lack of an American response to Lavrov’s comments, so soon after State Department officials boasted at a press briefing about the section of the agreement regarding the withdrawal of foreign forces, proves yet again who’s really running the show in Syria.
The reason for Russian support of Iran, despite Russia’s generally close and positive ties with Israel, is simple: The Iranians, and especially their Hezbollah proxies, are providing the Russians and the Assad regime with the ground forces upon which the regime’s survival hinges. Keeping the current regime in power is mission number one for the Russians, because that way they can maintain all the advantages – an image of power, a Mediterranean seaport at Tartus, potential trade deals – inherent in an Assad victory. Russia does not intervene or protest when Israel reportedly bombs a Hezbollah weapons convoy in Syria (as long as the airstrike doesn’t harm Russian troops), but is has no reason to exert itself to meet all of Israel’s demands about keeping the Iranians out of Syria.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week that Israel is not bound by the tripartite agreement, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman repeated his warning that Israel will not sit back and allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria nor let Syria become a forward position against Israel, adding, “Whoever hasn’t understood this yet would do well to understand it.”
What do the Israeli warnings refer to specifically? Brigadier General (res.) Assaf Orion, a senior scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank and former head of the IDF General Staff strategy department, says Iran has been waging war on Israel for some decades now via proxies. “But now, for the first time, the Iranians appear to be preparing to put in significant infrastructure in Syria – army bases, a seaport, weapons manufacturing plants, permanent military forces. When Israel says it won’t accept this, it is trying to dictate new rules of the game. More so than in the past, for Israel the northern front has become one long continuous front in which the border between Syria and Lebanon is completely blurred. We’ll have to ask ourselves: When exactly does the moment come when we respond?”
This week, Britain’s The Guardian offered a perceptive description of the Middle East mood. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s announcement of his resignation, under Saudi pressure, sparked tension throughout the region that links seemingly unrelated events. In fact, these various undercurrents have been moving for some time, and now they have risen to the surface.
The paper’s Middle East analyst, Martin Chulov, connects the dots between Hariri’s resignation, the Iraq-Iran takeover of Kirkuk on the Kurdistan border, the purges in Saudi Arabia, the famine afflicting millions due to Yemen’s civil war, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels firing a missile at the Riyadh airport. All of these things, he writes, are manifestations of a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is now reaching a peak all across the area between Beirut and Sanaa.
The multi-pronged Saudi move – involvement in wars in Syria and Yemen, political maneuvers in Lebanon, efforts to isolate Qatar, efforts to limit the influence of extremist Wahhabi clerics, the plans to build a colossal “city of the future,” the IPO of oil company Aramco, along with many other ambitious initiatives – is being overseen by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Assaf Orion believes the prince “has got too many balls in the air. It’s a systems overload that requires extraordinary command and control in tandem with long-term planning. I’m not sure the prince can sustain it without dropping any of the balls.”
To an outside observer, Saudi Arabia calls to mind what Churchill called Russia – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The series of moves set in motion by the crown prince, particularly the resignation that was forced upon Hariri, was met with some surprise in Israel, elsewhere in the region and in the West. Israeli military experts are also skeptical of the Saudis’ ability to advance their goals with their military capacity. Despite the purchase of billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry from the U.S. and other countries, the Saudis have performed poorly in combat in Yemen. And they have played a fairly minor part in the international coalition’s fight against ISIS. The Saudis’ big plans have to fully come up against hard reality, and when it does happen, the encounter is liable to be painful.
As far as security goes, a threat of escalation on the Gaza border hung over the country this week. The security assessment was that Islamic Jihad would try to stage a reprisal for the destruction of the attack tunnel in late October in which 12 operatives from Islamic Jihad and Hamas were killed. Here, the prime minister and defense minister warned of a severe response while simultaneously taking practical steps, including the deployment of Iron Dome missile defense systems in the center of the country. The decision to quickly deploy the missile defense batteries was dictated to the army at the cabinet meeting by Netanyahu. The cabinet ministers backed Netanyahu’s action, saying he was entitled to put wider safety margins in place when the situation could rapidly deteriorate.
Islamic Jihad in Gaza did not immediately respond to the killing of its men, apparently because of moves by Hamas and, according to Palestinian sources, by Egypt too, to restrain it. Shortly after the tunnel strike, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas began implementing their reconciliation agreement and PA police officers were stationed at the border crossings between Gaza and Israel for the first time in a decade.
But things have gotten more complicated since then. PA President Mahmoud Abbas is in no rush to transfer the money that he promised to Hamas to pay civil servants’ wages and to upgrade the electricity supply. The reopening of the Rafah crossing, the main avenue of departure from Gaza, is also being held up due to disputes between the parties. Under these circumstances, Hamas has less motivation to rein in Islamic Jihad. Things could get even worse if the entire reconciliation process gets stuck and Hamas goes looking for someone to blame for Gazans’ disappointed hopes of an improvement in their harsh living conditions.
Saudi Arabia has its fingers in the pie here, too. Two weeks ago, at the height of the upheaval in the kingdom, Abbas was urgently summoned to Riyadh. After the visit, his spokesman said the two parties view the reconciliation agreement with Hamas “100 percent the same way.” Since then, the PA has sharpened its demand that Hamas completely cut off ties with Iran and that its military wing submit all of its weaponry to Ramallah’s authority. Abbas’s aggressive new posture, evidently inspired by Saudi prodding, is angering the Egyptians, who acted as the patrons of the reconciliation process.