(July 9, 2018 / JNS)
The city of Daraa, in southern Syria, was the birthplace of the Syrian revolt against President Bashar Assad over seven years ago, and over the weekend it became the place where the revolt was declared dead and buried, as the rebels who held the city and its surroundings raised a white flag and surrendered to Assad’s forces.
From the outset, the rebels didn’t really stand a chance, especially given the regime’s airstrikes, which grew even more brutal once Assad’s Russian allies joined the fray. No less decisive for the rebels was what they call the “betrayal” of the United States. Six months ago, Washington pledged to stand by their side, but when push came to shove, the Americans preferred to strike a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin and allow the Syrian army to seize control of the country’s south.
Israel has resigned itself to the fact that Assad will once against control the shared Golan Heights border. After all, barring military intervention, it does not have to ability to stop him. This type of intervention is something Israel has gone to great lengths to avoid, and rightfully so.
Besides, over the past four decades, the Assad regime—first led by Hafez Assad and then by his son, Bashar—has been careful to keep the peace on the Israel-Syria border. The younger Assad made sure to maintain this policy throughout the civil war, even containing incident when Israel eliminated Iranian and Hezbollah targets on his soil.
Assad may have won the war in Syria, but this is a Pyrrhic victory. It will take him years, perhaps decades, to rehabilitate the country and especially his army. Meanwhile, his fate is in the hands of the allies to whom he owes his victory: Russia and Hezbollah.
It seems that here lies the potential trap for Israel. Not only has Assad returned to the border, this time he is backed by Iran’s regional proxy.
Washington and Moscow may have lent a sympathetic ear to Israel’s demand that any deal reached in Syria will require Iranian militias to stay far away from the border, but neither the Americans nor the Russians have offered any guarantees to that effect.
If anything, any statement supporting the Israeli position was followed by a contradicting one, such as the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement that the Iranian presence in Syria is legitimate and it would be “unrealistic” to expect Iran to pull its forces out of the war-torn country.
It appears that no one wants or seems to be able to remove the Iranians—neither from the border with Israel nor from Syria proper. After all, Tehran did not invest tens of billions of dollars and sacrifice thousands of militiamen in Syria simply to bow out at Israel’s request.
The challenge Israel faces intensifies given the emerging trend suggesting that Iran is seeking a confrontation on the border or, at the very least, a violent wrestling match with U.S. President Donald Trump.
The Iranians have already warned that if the United States tries to stifle them economically they will block all oil exports from the Persian Gulf, which, in turn, could significantly cripple the global economy. This unprecedented threat came not from a junior Revolutionary Guard officer but from President Hassan Rouhani himself, a self-professed moderate.
Still, it seems that the ayatollahs’ regime, which is already feeling the crunch and is wary of Trump’s future actions, has been left with only one weapon: threats. It is doubtful that Iran truly wants a direct military confrontation with the United States in the Gulf, as that would be a dangerous and costly scenario for Tehran. A limited confrontation with Israel on the Golan Heights, however, one with indirect Iranian involvement, could send necessary messages to Trump and his allies.
The bottom line is that Assad’s newfound control of the Golan Heights does not necessarily mean peace and quiet in the area. The Iranians are likely to turn southern Syria into their playground and while the United States remains a side in this conflict, it will be up to Israel, at least for now, to stop Iran.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.