Earlier this week, after a meeting with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu let the cat out of the bag. He said Israel was “totally opposed” to the U.S.-Russian ceasefire plan for southern Syria because it leaves Iran very much present — and gaining military power all the time — in the country.
According to the plan, a demarcation line in southern Syria near the Israeli border is supposed to keep Syrian government and allied forces on one side, rebel forces on the other. This “peace” is supposed to be policed by Russian troops; they are not exactly neutral actors, since they’re closely aligned with the Syrian camp.
That’s one problem Israel has with the plan. Another, as a “senior Israeli official” told the Israeli daily Haaretz:
[The agreement] doesn’t take almost any of Israel’s security interests [into account] and it creates a disturbing reality in southern Syria. The agreement doesn’t include a single explicit word about Iran, Hezbollah or the Shi’ite militias in Syria.
A report by Israeli defense analyst Alex Fishman gives background on what’s disturbing to Israel about that expanding Iranian presence:
Iran has leased a military airfield from the Syrian government in the center of the country in order to station fighter aircraft. Iran is also negotiating with the Syrians to establish a land base for Shiite militiamen and a port in the city of Tartus.
The land base would be an Iranian autonomous base capable of supporting 5,000 Iranian militiamen believed to be mercenaries from Afghanistan and Pakistan under the command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
These steps represent a move by Iran to establish a long-term presence in Syria and pose a threat to Israel.
Another Israeli commentator, Middle East analyst Avi Issacharoff, takes a similarly dim view of the developments in Syria. Neither commentator is a backer of the Netanyahu government; the view is Israeli, not political. In a piece called “The Iranians are at the borders,” Issacharoff says that “the American military effort [against the Islamic State]” is actually:
… paving the way for the Iranians to take control over the area with close Russian assistance … Iran is already treating Syria like its 15th province (the 14th being Bahrain). It [already has] about 15,000 Shi’ite troops from Afghanistan and Pakistan there. Approximately 8,000 combat soldiers of Hezbollah and several hundred military advisors from the Revolutionary Guards are also deployed in Syria.
Issacharoff says further that Iran has already “received Assad’s consent, in principle,” for the seaport in Tartus, and that “the port is to be Iranian in every way, with no possibility for the Syrians to operate.”
As for the U.S.-Russian ceasefire, Issacharoff concludes that “paradoxically … [it] will help the Shi’ite axis far more than its opponents.”
Reportedly, Netanyahu conveyed the Israeli concerns by phone to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday. In an apparent response, attempting to calm Israeli nerves, a “White House official” told the Jerusalem Post:
“[B]oth governments — the United States and Israel — are rightly concerned about Iran’s malign influence in the region. … A core goal of U.S. policy in Syria is to ensure that no vacuum is created which Iran can fill.”
It remains to be seen whether that purportedly soothing message has a basis, or whether the Trump policy is getting disturbingly reminiscent of the Obama policy. Obama also fought the Islamic State while treating Iran — or if not Iran itself, then its ally Russia — as a partner in supposedly stabilizing the region.
Yaakov Amidror, formerly Israel’s national security adviser, says that if Iran keeps exploiting the ceasefire to boost its presence and power, “that might lead the IDF to intervene and to destroy every attempt to build infrastructure in Syria.”
Current Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman is only slightly less explicit, warning that:
The establishment of an air and sea base and the attempt to permanently station 5,000 Shiite fighters on Syrian soil are not acceptable to us, and will have heavy consequences.
Allowing Syria to become a launching pad for Iranian aggression is not the way to achieve stability. Israel and the U.S. will be conferring closely on the issue and hopefully will reach understanding and agreement.