In Syria, Force Will Prevail

Israel's determination to commit its strong military capability is probably higher than that of most of the parties fighting in Syria. Hopefully that threat is enough

IAF F-15s fly during a graduation ceremony for Israeli pilots at the Hatzerim air base, December 27, 2017.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

Syria, once a recognized nation-state, by some even considered a potential partner for peace with Israel, has in the past five years turned into a slaughterhouse. Bashar Assad continues to kill civilians in a desperate attempt to assure his survival.

He is assisted by Russian and Iranian forces, both exploiting the opportunity of a disintegrating Syria to grab a sphere of influence for themselves, regardless of the cost in civilian lives. The Russians are using their air force and missiles as well as mercenaries on the ground. The Iranians are employing their Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. Without them, Assad would have fallen a long time ago under assault from a motley group of rebel forces.

Now the Turkish army has been sent into northern Syria in an attempt to thwart the establishment of an autonomous, or possibly even independent, Kurdish region on Turkey’s border. In response, Kurdish forces that were fighting the remnants of Islamic State enclaves in Syria and were assisted by American troops are withdrawing from the front and rushing to the aid of their Kurdish brethren under assault by the Turks. They feel that their American allies have abandoned them.

Israel, concerned by the approach of the Iranians and their proxy, Hezbollah, to Israel’s borders, and by Iran’s upgrading of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal, has repeatedly used its air force in an attempt to block these moves.

The fighting and the attendant suffering of the civilian population seem far from over. As long as the Iranians, Russians and Turks are prepared to commit their armed forces it will continue. In the end, force will prevail.

Of course the Russians, Iranians and Turks have the military capability to crush their opponents. The question is whether they are prepared to go all the way.

Are the Russians prepared to take mounting casualties and dissatisfaction at home to keep Assad in power and maintain the bases they have established in Syria? Are the Turks prepared to incur the displeasure of the Americans and risk the involvement of American forces in support of the Kurds, and retaliatory measures by Kurds in Turkey itself? As for the Iranians, they have to take into account Israeli strikes aimed at limiting their activity in Syria.

Of the parties engaged in Syria that have a substantial military capability, Israel probably has the highest motivation to engage its military power. For the Russians their engagement in Syria may be important, but it’s still of secondary importance. It’s an effort to expand Russian influence in the area but doesn’t relate to Russia’s basic security interests. The Turks are concerned about the long-term implications of a Kurdish-controlled region on their border, but Turkey’s security is assured even if that occurred. Both will most likely limit the commitment of their armed forces in the area.

The Iranians have already substantially committed resources and a military capability to establish a hegemony stretching from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon. To what extent are they prepared to enlarge this commitment in pursuit of that objective now that they face Israeli opposition to their plans in Syria?

Israeli motivation to prevent an Iranian approach to Israel’s borders is high, and Israel’s military capability is substantial. For Israel the product of military capability and determination to commit that capability is probably higher than that of most of the participants in the fighting in Syria – maybe even higher even than that of the Iranians.

Israel has already demonstrated its readiness to use force to halt the Iranian expansion in the area. Hopefully that will be sufficient to get the Iranians to desist, and there will be no need to escalate the fighting.