Despite ongoing concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, dealing with threats emanating from the Syrian war theater currently tops the agenda of Israel’s security apparatus, according to a top intelligence official.

“The most important strategic issue we’re currently facing is the strengthening of the Shiite axis led by Iran in Syria, especially after the fall of Aleppo,” Chagai Tzuriel, the director-general of the Intelligence Ministry, told The Times of Israel.

In mid-December, pro-government forces captured the war-torn city from the hands of rebels fighters.

“Syria is the key arena, because it’s a microcosm of everything: world powers, such as Russia and the US; regional actors such as Iran and Turkey; and rival groups within the country, such the Assad regime, the opposition, the Kurds and the Islamic State,” Tzuriel said during a briefing last week in his Jerusalem office. “Whatever happens in Syria today will greatly impact the region, and beyond, for years to come.”

Chagai Tzuriel, director-general of the Intelligence Ministry, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy)

Chagai Tzuriel, director-general of the Intelligence Ministry, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy)

The war there shows that the entire world is now made up of “frenemies,” countries with conflicting interests, he said, using the term both in English and in a Hebrew portmanteau of his own creation: amitorfim, a combination of amit, meaning friend, and torfim, predators.

“It’s not schtick,” he said; it’s how the world operates now.

Israel’s recent rapprochement with Turkey, Tzuriel added, could be seen as an extension of this “frenemies” concept. The two staunchly disagree on Hamas and the Palestinian issue, but see eye to eye on the threat from Iran.

Syria, Russia, Iran

Tall, with bright blue eyes and gray hair, Tzuriel became the top civil servant at the Intelligence Ministry in May 2016, taking over for Ram Ben-Barak, who left after losing out for the position of head of the Mossad. Like that of his predecessor, Tzuriel’s background is in the clandestine Mossad spy agency, where he served for 28 years.

A map of Tehran hangs on the wall behind his desk and an official-looking hat bearing the emblem of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps sits on his bookshelf, but it’s Syria and the war there that occupy his mind, he said.

In a sense, the six-year-long war in Syria has already had a massive impact on the world, Tzuriel said, citing scores of terrorists and millions of immigrants who exited the country and left their mark across the globe. “In that respect, it is no exaggeration to say that the Syrian civil war has, to some extent, influenced important developments way outside its borders, such as Brexit and even the election in the US,” he said.

Recent developments in Syria have created “a strong imbalance in the region to Iran’s benefit,” said Tzuriel.

And yet, since Moscow decided to take a more engaged role in the conflict, actively supporting the Assad regime, Iran’s role as Damascus’s main backer has been diminished, he said.

“Russia has become the dominant power in Syria,” he said, adding that Moscow achieved that feat despite investing remarkably minor resources into the civil war. “The Russians have managed to become the key player with only a few dozen aircraft. That’s proof that political will and the readiness to use military force are key.”

On Tuesday, Russia, along with China and Bolivia, vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have sanctioned Syrian officials over the regime’s illicit use of chemical weapons. The US and other Western powers on the council voted in favor of the resolution and denounced Moscow for blocking it.

Members of the UN Security Council vote on a Russian-Turkish peace plan for Syria, at UN Headquarters in New York, December 31, 2016. (AFP/KENA BETANCUR)

Members of the UN Security Council vote on a Russian-Turkish peace plan for Syria, at UN Headquarters in New York, December 31, 2016. (AFP/KENA BETANCUR)

Besides treating wounded civilians on the border and attacking weapons convoys deemed a strategic threat, Israel has so far stayed out of the war. However, Tzuriel said, the US’s continued involvement is crucial to Israel’s interest in seeing Iran kept from extending hegemony to Syria, allowing the Islamic Republic to link Tehran and Beirut.

“For Israel, it is important to see the US remaining active in Syria and the region,” he said.

Criticizing the previous US administration, he said president Barack Obama’s decision, in 2013, to not use military force against Assad’s regime despite its use of chemical weapons “was a pivotal moment for the entire region.”

“This moment changed everything,” said Tzuriel, who served as the Mossad’s representative to the US a few years ago.”It showed [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that the US was not willing to use force. It opened the door for Russia to take center stage.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on June 7, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, on June 7, 2016. (Haim Zach/GPO)

For Israel, the most important issue in Syria is making sure Iran and its proxies aren’t able to set up a base to attack Israel from.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to travel to Moscow in the coming days to further discuss Israeli-Russian coordination regarding Syria. He has said Israel will oppose any peace agreement that would allow Iran and its Shiite proxies any foothold there.

“If Iran and Hezbollah manage to base themselves in Syria, it would be a permanent source of instability in the entire region,” Tzuriel explained, referring specifically to the threat of an Iranian naval base on the Mediterranean. “It would also bring instability to areas with Sunni minorities outside the Middle East.”

‘Obama didn’t see Iran as part of the problem. Trump does’

Despite the supreme focus on Syria, the Iranian nuclear program remains high on Israel’s agenda, Tzuriel said. Affirming Jerusalem’s general objection to the nuclear pact Iran and six world powers signed in 2015, he confirmed that, so far, Tehran “abides by the terms of the deal.”

But the world may have “bought the present in exchange for the future,” he said.

“The main problem with the deal is that it allows the regime to build advanced centrifuges. These centrifuges will enable Tehran to build several nuclear bombs in much less time than they did before the deal with the old centrifuges,” he said.

Stopping short of calling for the deal to be torn up, he said it would be good “if there was a way to improve the terms of the deal and advance other resolutions that deal with the Iranian missile program and support of terror organizations.”

As opposed to the Obama administration, Trump has indicated a tough policy vis-a-vis Tehran. It is noteworthy that the new president said that he will “never” allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon capability, Tzuriel said.

“The feeling in Israel was that Obama didn’t see Iran as part of the problem. Trump, by contrast, appears to view Iran as part of the problem.”