(October 24, 2019 / JNS) Amid the fast-paced violent developments unfolding in northeast Syria, Iran remains a central actor in the area, and it likely views the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from the area as a new opportunity.
The Turkish invasion that followed the hasty U.S. exit led the Kurds to seek a new arrangement with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is backed by Iran and Russia. On Tuesday, Russia brokered what it said was a new deal, giving Turkey control of the strip of land it conquered in northeast Syria.
In recent years, the Iranians have worked intensively to consolidate an offensive military presence in Syria through the construction of missile bases, weapons storehouses and terror cells. Israel has worked with equal intensity to detect and block such efforts using intelligence and precision airstrikes.
“For the Iranians, on the one hand, the U.S. exit is excellent news because it means the Americans are leaving the sector. But it is also negative for Iran because Turkey has entered it,” Lt. Col. (ret.) Orna Mizrahi, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told JNS on Wednesday. “Ultimately, the Iranians will welcome the U.S. exit more than they will be upset about the Turkish entry. In the overall balance for Iran, they will view it as a plus.”
Mizrahi, a former Deputy National Security Adviser for Foreign Policy on behalf of the National Security Council, said that Turkey’s invasion and the Russian-brokered arrangement represent a “division of the Syrian plunder.”
“This will not stop Iran from creating a Shi’ite axis, linking Iraq, Syria and Lebanon,” cautioned Mizrahi, also a former Military Intelligence analyst.
For Israel, the principal interest remains pushing the Iranians out of Syria and weakening the Iranian presence as much as possible, she added. In Israeli eyes, Iran remains the most threatening problematic actor in Syria.
In recent weeks, reports have emerged of renewed Iranian efforts to set up a land crossing between Syria and Iraq near the town of Albu Kamal.
This appears to be part of Iran’s objective of creating a continuous axis to threaten Israel and pragmatic Arab states, stated Mizrahi.
“It is clear to us that we can’t totally push Iran out of Syria, so long as the Assad regime is there,” she added. “Iran has a significant footprint there—and not just military-wise—but also through the Syrian economy and support for the Syrian state. Its connection with the regime and the Syrian population means it will be hard to uproot. But the most important thing for Israel is to prevent Iran’s military consolidation.”
Meanwhile, Russia—another backer of Assad—has significantly gained leverage in Syria following the American exit. “That is bad not only for Israel, but also for the West,” said Mizrahi. “It expresses a lack of U.S. influence. The fact is that Israel is alone in dealing with threats from Syria.”
While Israel prefers the United States, its top strategic partner, it has little choice but to deal with Russia instead, a country whose influence in next door Syria is only growing.
“Russia is an element that is not an enemy at this time,” said Mizrahi. “Israel is holding a dialogue with it. But Russia works according to its own interests, and if it suits them to take a certain course of action that clashes with Israeli interests, they will do so. Since 2015, when they entered the Syrian arena, they have become our neighbors, and we have to live with that fact.”
As a result, the Jewish state is working to create a positive dialogue and coordinate with Russia to the extent that this is possible.
Rising ISIS activities
Meanwhile, a paper published on Tuesday by the Meir Amit Intelligence and terrorism Information Center warned that the more the military power of the Kurds in Syria declines, the harder it will be to keep the lid on ISIS. The report noted that a significant release of ISIS prisoners will fortify the jihadist organization’s military strength in Syria and in Iraq by adding thousands of trained, experienced and motivated radical operatives to its ranks.
Col. (ret.) Reuven Erlich, director of the Meir Amit Center, told JNS that since the Turkish invasion began this month, ISIS has already risen in profile by conducting multiple attacks in eastern Syria. “We have seen ISIS attacks rise quantitatively and qualitatively,” he said. “They have already carried out major attacks, targeting bases and headquarters of the [Kurdish-led] SDF,” he said.
Recent attacks have included an increase in suicide bombings, as well as car and motorcycle bombings.
Eventually, a resurgent ISIS in eastern Syria could infiltrate southern Syria and potentially launch attacks on the Israeli border, he added.
Erlich said that Israel must “closely track all developments in the Syrian civil war. Despite what many have claimed, the Syrian war is not over. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan took a tin of gasoline and poured it on a fire that has been burning the whole time.”
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