As Islamic State wanes, Iran and Hezbollah could turn on Israel
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Analysis

As Islamic State wanes, Iran and Hezbollah could turn on Israel

With Russia's help, the Syrian regime and Shiite axis are vanquishing the opposition - and drawing dangerously close to Israel's border

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Hezbollah observation post on the Israeli-Lebanese border, according to the IDF. Photo released on June 22, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
A Hezbollah observation post on the Israeli-Lebanese border, according to the IDF. Photo released on June 22, 2017. (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Recent developments in the war between the Syrian regime and rebel forces show that the relative comfort zone that Israel has long enjoyed along its northern border is narrowing. The recent pummeling of the notorious Islamic State group makes an escalation in hostilities between Israel and the forces of President Bashar Assad along with his staunch ally, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group, increasingly likely.

The terrible civil war ravaging Syria has for several years forced Hezbollah, deployed to the battlefield on Assad’s behalf, to limit the resources and energy it expends on confronting Israel. Some 2,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed and 6,000 injured fighting in Syria — about a third of the organization’s fighting force. The same has been true for Syria’s standing army, which looked exhausted, almost defeated, until Russia swooped in to turn the tide.

In recent weeks, the cumulative effect of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts has helped swing the pendulum in favor of Assad, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militias active in the arena on behalf of Iran. The battle against the Islamic State group in Mosul, Iraq, is drawing to a close, and it is clear that next in line to fall will be Raqqa, the group’s stronghold in Syria.

In other fronts, too, the Syrian army is scoring major victories, including in the Deir Ezzor region in the country’s northeast, where Assad’s forces, aided by Shiite militiamen, have broken through to the area of Abu Kamal, on the Iraqi border. It is a region where Kurdish and other forces that receive US support have been very active. Hence the recent rise in friction between the US army and Syrian forces that led to the downing of a Syrian jet last week.

Image made from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry press service on August 18, 2016, shows a Russian combat fighter bomber Su-34 unload its bombs over a target in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service photo via AP, File)
Image made from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry press service on August 18, 2016, shows a Russian combat fighter bomber Su-34 unload its bombs over a target in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service photo via AP, File)

The various military factions in Syria – both pro-Assad and against – are fighting over the scraps of territory from which the Islamic State is withdrawing. Naturally, the area that most worries Israel – and its neighbor to the east, Jordan – is around Daraa, in the country’s southwest. It is where the civil war broke out in 2011, and it is a likely spot for a future last stand by Syria’s moderate opposition.

The battles raging in that area, and on the nearby Syrian Golan Heights, are the ones from which errant shells occasionally fly over the border into Israeli territory. But there is no deliberate Syrian fire, and anyway Israel’s main concern isn’t misdirected shells.

The most significant danger is that Shiite militias backing Assad will approach and gain control at the borders with Jordan and Israel. While Jerusalem and Amman are cooperating on the matter, it is doubtful such cooperation can stem the advance of pro-Iranian forces, be they Hezbollah or other militias emanating from Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan.

Smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, on June 14, 2017. (AFP/Mohamad Abazeed)
Smoke rises from buildings following a reported airstrike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, on June 14, 2017. (AFP/Mohamad Abazeed)

The Shiite axis is on the march, and the Islamic State is no longer in the breach, where it was keeping the Shiites occupied. The unofficial Israeli approach to the Syrian conflict, a prayer for the success of both sides, is becoming increasingly irrelevant as one side — that of the regime — pummels the other.

The consequences of the latest developments in Syria and Iraq are echoing in Lebanon in the form of belligerent declarations by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. On Friday, Nasrallah vowed that his group’s next war with Israel will pave a path for “thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of fighters from all the Arab states and the Islamic world” to fall upon the Jewish state.

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