AS SYRIA STABILIZES, WILL ISRAELI ATTACKS ON SYRIA BECOME MORE DANGEROUS?
How Putin Benefits from the Israeli-Iranian Struggle in Syria: Yaacov Lappin, BESA, Apr. 8, 2019 — Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been engaged in a flurry of discussions recently, at least some of which are likely tied to Iranian activities in Syria.
Israeli Strategy in Response to Changes in the Syrian Arena: Ron Tira, INSS Insight No. 1131, January 22, 2019 —
In “’The Culminating Point of Success’: Risk Overload in the Campaign between Wars in Syria” (INSS Insight, January 6, 2019), Brig. Gen. (ret.) Itai Brun argues that new circumstances in the Syrian arena have led to an “overload” of intensifying risks, and therefore the objectives, need, and ability to implement the campaign between wars strategy that Israel has pursued in Syria should be reexamined.
Middle East Nightmare: Could Israeli Strikes in Syria Trigger War With Russia?: Michael Peck, The National Interest, Apr. 6, 2019 — Could Israeli air strikes in Syria trigger war between Israel and Russia?
Washington Is Still Thinking About A New Border Force in Syria: Seth J. Frentzman, Jerusalem Post, Apr. 7, 2019 — The US is still trying to thread the needle between its alliance with Turkey and its partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria.
On Topic Links
The Ambassadors Series: A Discussion with Ambassador Danny Danon: Hudson Institute, Mar. 25, 2019 — Hudson Institute hosted Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon for a discussion on U.S.-Israeli relations and Israeli foreign policy.
Israel’s Dilemma over Syrian Reconstruction: Anat Ben Haim, Udi Dekel, INSS Insight No. 1132, Jan. 27, 2019 — In 2018, the Assad regime essentially completed its victory in Syria and shifted its focus from fighting to efforts to rebuild the country.
Middle Israel: How Syria Lost the Golan: Amotz Asa-El, Jerusalem Post, Mar. 29, 2019 — Syria has been partitioned. This is the bottom line of the gruesome civil war that – after eight years, half-a-million fatalities and 10 million refuges – is finally coming to an end.
Russian Special Forces Train Palestinian Militia in Syria: Caleb Weiss, FDD, Mar. 6, 2019 — In a video released yesterday by the Russian propaganda news channel RT, Russian special forces were shown training members of Liwa al Quds, a pro-regime Palestinian militia group in Syria.
HOW PUTIN BENEFITS FROM THE ISRAELI-IRANIAN STRUGGLE IN SYRIA
BESA, Apr. 8, 2019
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin have been engaged in a flurry of discussions recently, at least some of which are likely tied to Iranian activities in Syria.
The meetings come in the shadow of recent reports of a major Israeli airstrike on March 28 that targeted an Iranian weapons warehouse near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. The strike reportedly resulted in large blasts and casualties.
Russia leads a pro-Assad military coalition in Syria, of which Iranian forces are a central part. It also maintains a deconfliction channel with Israel to avoid unintended clashes between its air force and the Israeli Air Force, both of which are active in the Syrian arena. Putin has also attempted to play the role of mediator between Israel and Iran, seeking to douse the shadow war raging between them on Syrian soil. Israel, for its part, is determined to disrupt Iran’s plan to turn Syria into a war front against it.
Netanyahu flew to Moscow last Thursday for a meeting with Putin, just five days before Israel’s April 9 elections. On April 1, Netanyahu and Putin held a phone conversation to talk about “military cooperation issues,” according to the Kremlin, as well as “pressing bilateral issues” and “the situation in the Middle East region.”
On February 27, the two leaders met in Moscow to discuss Syria. Netanyahu said the two sides reached an agreement on how to coordinate between their militaries. They also apparently agreed on a goal of getting “foreign troops” to leave Syria, according to Netanyahu.
While Russia will not be able to satisfy everyone, it does understand that it will need to leave each side with “half of its desires,” Professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said. To achieve this, Moscow will get every actor to spell out “what is really important to it, and here, Israel has an opportunity to define the range and perimeter of Iran’s actions in Syria,” he added. “In general, this is a new situation that the region is not used to. The Russians are managing this game with many bargaining chips, and Israel will have to adapt itself to the new rules of the game.”
Doron Itzchakov, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, agreed that the current situation is good for Moscow. “The Russian interest is to position itself as the ‘final judge’ in Syria, and this situation, in which Netanyahu runs to Putin and the Iranian side runs to him, is comfortable for them. They are comfortable with being the ones balancing the scales,” he said.
Iran, for its part, will be closely monitoring Israel’s contacts with Russia and will adapt its policies in Syria accordingly. “The Iranians will be watching out for Russia’s policy in Syria, to see how they need to change their tactics. Iran has no plan to release its grip on Syria, but it will change tactics so as not to lose momentum,” Itzchakov said.
One recent example of how Iran has adapted its takeover efforts in Syria is the way it has embedded its military personnel and weaponry in sites run by the official Syrian Arab Army. This has not stopped Israel from reportedly striking such targets when it detects them.
Itzchakov stressed that Iran’s decisions in Syria cannot be disconnected from Tehran’s wider geopolitical ambitions or from internal power struggles that are raging inside the Islamic Republic. He cited a visit in March by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to neighboring Iraq as an example of this linkage. The goal of that visit was to develop an economic corridor to bypass American sanctions, said Itzchakov… [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
ISRAELI STRATEGY IN RESPONSE TO CHANGES IN THE SYRIAN ARENA
INSS Insight No. 1131, January 22, 2019
In “’The Culminating Point of Success’: Risk Overload in the Campaign between Wars in Syria” (INSS Insight, January 6, 2019), Brig. Gen. (ret.) Itai Brun argues that new circumstances in the Syrian arena have led to an “overload” of intensifying risks, and therefore the objectives, need, and ability to implement the campaign between wars strategy that Israel has pursued in Syria should be reexamined. Although he does not call for a halt to the campaign between wars, he prepares the case for reduced and more focused activity. The purpose of this article is to broaden the factual background surveyed in Brun’s article, and then present another thesis regarding the conclusions to be drawn from the analysis.
Brun’s article indicates a number of possible objectives of the campaign between wars that are cited frequently by the Israeli political echelon, including preventing the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah; blocking Iranian entrenchment in Syria; frustrating attempts by Hezbollah, Iran, or Shiite militias to establish a foothold on the Syrian Golan Heights and turn it into a “hot” border; and foiling Hezbollah’s “precision missiles project.” These objectives can be ranked according to their importance to Israel’s national security. However, not every objective represents a vital Israeli interest, and accordingly, as levels of risk and costs change, it is appropriate to reexamine them. Yet it is also possible to argue that foiling the deployment of precision weapons by Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon is a vital Israeli national interest that must be secured, even at the cost of assuming a higher level of risk than was assumed in previous years.
In some senses, Israel is an exception in its vulnerability to precision weapons. On the one hand, it is a Western country with advanced critical infrastructures; on the other hand, it is a small country with highly concentrated critical infrastructures and limited redundancy. If we look at electricity production in Israel, for example, out of a national capacity of about 17.6 MW, 28 percent is produced in only two sites (with ten turbines), while the six largest electricity production sites in Israel account for 51 percent of national capacity (with only 26 production units). The picture is similar or even more severe for other critical systems, such as water desalination, gas infrastructure, civil aviation, and certain other civil and military systems.
Israel has an offensive and defensive response to the precision missiles threat, but this response can never be hermetic. Therefore, even the threat posed by a small number of precision missiles that manage to penetrate Israeli defenses could be unprecedented
The establishment of a precision missile echelon by Iran and Hezbollah in Israel’s “first circle” (jargon in Israel for the bordering regions) could give these actors the ability to deliver a paralyzing blow against civil and military systems, causing enormous damage and changing the strategic equation in the theater. To be sure, this threat is not as severe as the one that the Begin Doctrine was designed to prevent, but neither is it akin to the threat posed by a buildup of weapons intended for warfare between armies or statistical weapons aimed at the home front. This is a new category of threat, and because of its severity, the overarching counter idea must be one of prevention and not delay, containment, preemptive strike, or active and passive defense.
The Israeli political echelon uses the language of prevention rather than delay. Yet as Brun states, Israel’s operations until now limited and hindered Iranian entrenchment in Syria and the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah but did not prevent them. Indeed, Israeli strategy in the years 2013-2017 became a victim of its own success: it was so surgical that its strategic footprint was limited, and thus it did not cause the relevant actors to reexamine their policy on this matter.
It is possible to agree that as Syria stabilizes, Israeli attacks within its territory will become less routine and more dangerous. At that point, however, what will be the end states in the campaign against the buildup of a bordering precision weapons echelon by Iran and Hezbollah? Iran will remain in Syria in one way or another; it will have access to the airports, and it seems that once the American forces withdraw, Iran’s overland corridor through Iraq will be even more accessible. Thus, Iran and Hezbollah will have the technical/physical capability to continue transferring high quality weapons to Syria and Lebanon… [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
MIDDLE EAST NIGHTMARE: COULD ISRAELI STRIKES IN SYRIA TRIGGER WAR WITH RUSSIA?
The National Interest, Apr. 6, 2019
Could Israeli air strikes in Syria trigger war between Israel and Russia? Israel remains determined to continue pounding Iranian forces in Syria in a bid to keep Tehran’s forces away from Israel’s northern border. At the same time, Russia has thousands of troops in Syria that could be caught in the crossfire—or even become belligerents if Moscow tires of its Syrian ally being pummeled.
And if Israel and Russia come to blows, would Israel’s big brother—the United States—feel compelled to intervene? Not that Jerusalem or Moscow are eager for such a fight. “Neither of us desire a military confrontation,” a senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) official told me during a recent interview in Jerusalem. “It would be detrimental to both sides.”
Yet Israel’s policy boils down to this: it will do whatever it sees as necessary to eject Iranian forces from Syria. And if Russia doesn’t like it, then that’s just the price of ensuring that Syria doesn’t become another Iranian rocket base on Israel’s border.
Relations between Jerusalem and Moscow are far warmer than during the Cold War. The result is a strange embrace reminiscent of the U.S.-Soviet detente of the 1970s. On the surface, a certain friendliness and desire for cooperation. Yet beneath the smiles is wariness, suspicion and a clash of fundamental interests. “No one in Israel is confused about who the Russians are and who they are aligned with,” said the IDF official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Russians are not our allies, to put it mildly. We have one ally, and that is the United States. The Russians are here for totally different objectives. They are supporting a regime [Syria] that has an outspoken goal of annihilating Israel if it only could. They are also part of a coalition that supports Iran.”
Just how easily Israeli military operations can trigger an incident became evident during a September 2018 strike on ammunition depots in western Syria. Anti-aircraft missiles launched by Syrian gunners accidentally shot down a Russian Il-20 surveillance aircraft, killing fifteen people. Israel denies Russian accusations that it deliberately used the Russian plane as cover or failed to give Moscow sufficient warning of the raid. Yet Russia still blamed Israel for the mishap and retaliated by supplying advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.
Nonetheless, Israel sees value in Russia as a potential restraint on Iran, and a possible lever to get Iranian forces out of Syria. After a February meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin to mend fences after the Il-20 incident, Israeli officials claimed Putin had agreed that foreign forces should withdraw from Syria. For Moscow, friendly relations with Israel offer more influence in the Middle East even as America may be scaling down its presence in the region… [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]
WASHINGTON IS STILL THINKING ABOUT A NEW BORDER FORCE IN SYRIA
Seth J. Frentzman
Jerusalem Post, Apr. 7, 2019
The US is still trying to thread the needle between its alliance with Turkey and its partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria. The hope is that a border force or “safe zone” can reduce tensions after the defeat of Islamic State.
Since the US announced its withdrawal from Syria in December last year and then reversed that decision, Washington and Ankara have been discussing what comes next in eastern Syria, where the US has been working with Kurdish and Arab fighters to defeat ISIS.
Jared Szuba, of The Defense Post news site, spoke to Aldar Xelil, a diplomatic relations official from the Movement for a Democratic Society. Xelil’s views reflect the larger thinking of the SDF and Kurdish forces in eastern Syria. The US-led coalition and the SDF declared the defeat of ISIS in its last “caliphate” foothold in the Euphrates Valley in late March. The defeat came three months after US President Donald Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from Syria, which cast a huge question mark over what comes next in the region.
With the support of the US and the coalition, the SDF liberated a huge swath of Syria from ISIS. But this has also increased tensions with Turkey. Ankara has accused the US of working closely with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which it says is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). From Ankara’s perspective, this means the PKK has come to control areas of eastern Syria while fighting ISIS with US support.
Turkey has been fighting the PKK since a 2015 ceasefire broke down. It launched operations in Syria in the fall of 2016, and then again in January 2018. In the latter case, it took over the area of Afrin along with Syrian rebel groups, promising that hundreds of thousands of mostly Syrian Arab refugees would return. Kurds fled, and the YPG was defeated in Afrin. Turkey has vowed to launch an operation in eastern Syria to remove the YPG, and Ankara says it will return Kurdish areas to their “true owners.”
From the Kurdish perspective, eastern Syria is a recipe for disaster, as all their gains fighting ISIS will be lost and the relative stability they have brought since 2015 will be scuppered. The US is also concerned. In a recent New Yorker article, Robin Wright sketched out how the US is seen as having “betrayed” its allies in eastern Syria. SDF commander Mazloum Kobani asked, “How could a great country behave like that and abandon its allies in the middle of the fight? … [To read the full article, click the following LINK – Ed.]