Analysts: Israel’s headed to a war in Syria, and only Russia can stop it

With new report, the Crisis Group, a think tank and advocacy organization, tries to get Moscow to accept role of mediator between Israel, Hezbollah and Iran

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An Israeli flag flutters above the wreckage of a tank on a hill in the Golan Heights overlooking the border with Syria on October 18, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)
An Israeli flag flutters above the wreckage of a tank on a hill in the Golan Heights overlooking the border with Syria on October 18, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

As Syrian dictator Bashar Assad fights to regain control over the last holdouts of rebel resistance, the seven-year-old civil war is entering a new phase that is setting Israel on a collision course with the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis.

This can be seen in the recent airstrikes in Syria reportedly conducted by Israel and — as importantly — in the increasingly brazen ways that Damascus has responded to them. The most recent example was early Wednesday morning when, according to Syrian reports, Israeli aircraft bombed a military scientific research facility outside Damascus, which is suspected of both developing chemical weapons for Assad and assisting Iran and Hezbollah in improving their missile technology.

According to a new report by the International Crisis Group, a think tank and advocacy firm, the only figure able to prevent a full-fledged, bloody conflict between Israel and the Iran-led axis is Russia, which has emerged from the Syrian civil war as the sole remaining powerbroker.

The United States is barely mentioned as having a role to play in any potential deescalation efforts, in light of both Moscow’s rising status in the region and America’s diminishing one, as it significantly scaled back its involvement in Syria over the past few years, according to Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the Crisis Group who helped write the report.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad in Sochi, Russia, on November 20, 2017. (AFP/SPUTNIK/Mikhail KLIMENTYEV)

“Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation,” according to the report.

The Crisis Group’s report, “Israel, Hezbollah and Iran: Preventing Another War in Syria,” was released on Thursday. It is the result of a year’s worth of interviews by researchers for the organization with diplomats and defense officials in Jerusalem, Tehran, Beirut, Washington, Moscow and Amman, Zalzberg told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, ahead of its publication.

Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement

As the Crisis Group also functions as an advocacy organization, it has not only released this report to the public, but has been working directly with Russia to try to persuade it to accept the role of mediator between Israel, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.

“And we are seeing some traction with Russian officials,” Zalzberg said.

The group outlines three main aspects that would need to be addressed: the presence of Iranian and Shiite forces near the Israeli border; the construction of Iranian military infrastructure in Syria; and reaching an agreement that “whatever happens in Syria, stays in Syria,” so that fighting doesn’t spillover into Lebanon.

The report does not indicate that a conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is imminent, as both sides currently see value in maintaining a relative calm, but implies that as the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis wrests back full control over the country, the Lebanese terrorist group could start antagonizing Israel from southern Syria, where it enjoys something of an advantage, as it has few significant assets in that area for the Israel Defense Forces to strike.

Supporters of the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah watch a video screening of a speech by the group’s head, Hassan Nasrallah, to mark the 11th anniversary of the end of the 2006 war with Israel, in the village of Khiam in southern Lebanon, August 13, 2017. (AFP/Mahmoud ZAYYAT)

Hearing from the various parties, the Crisis Group analysts came to the disconcerting conclusion that the sides do not have a clear understanding of each other’s concerns and desires, which raises the potential for the kind of miscalculation that leads to war, Zalzberg said.

For instance, he said, Israel does not see Hezbollah and Syria as being independent actors, with their own goals, but as little more than “marionettes” controlled by Iran — a view that is not shared by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah or Russia.

What is it good for? Absolutely nothing

Beginning in September 2015, Russia started lending significant support to its ally Assad, sending fighter jets and bombers into the country, as well as ground troops. Since then the Russian military has become even more deeply invested in propping up the despot, waging on his behalf a devastating aerial campaign against rebel-controlled areas of the country that is killing countless civilians, most recently in Idlib, according to human rights groups operating in those regions.

The report and its authors argue that it is ultimately in Russia’s best interest to avoid an all-out war between Israel and the Lebanon-based, Iran-backed Hezbollah, which would have the potential to completely destabilize the region.

Israeli soldiers cover their ears as they fire artillery shells at southern Lebanon from outside Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel during the Second Lebanon War on July 22, 2006. (Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)

Unlike in the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah when the fighting was primarily limited to northern Israel and southern Lebanon, the view of both Israeli and Hezbollah officials is that the next conflict between the two groups would also include fighting in Syria.

“A massive campaign by Israel will do enormous damage to [Damascus and its backers’] achievements, perhaps even destabilising the regime itself,” the report noted.

According to Zalzberg, this is not a desirable situation for Russia, as Moscow would like to see Assad — a strong, secular Arab leader — remain in power in Syria.

A massive campaign by Israel will do enormous damage to [Damascus and its backers’] achievements, perhaps even destabilising the regime itself

He noted that this is at odds with Iran, which wants to see Assad remain in power, but does not necessarily want to see him becoming too powerful. Tehran would instead prefer to have Syria controlled by a coalition, similar to Lebanon, so that the Shiite militias it has been backing could play a more prominent role in the country.

Zalzberg added that Russia might like to see a small-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah, as Moscow could further improve its international status by negotiating a ceasefire. However, it realizes that since the prevailing view is that any sustained fighting between the two would likely devolve into all-out war — with Hezbollah firing upwards of a thousand rockets and missiles a day at Israel, while the IDF pounds it back with strikes from the air, sea and ground — all conflict between the two sides should be avoided.

The only game in town

Backing Assad has put Moscow on the same side as the Syrian despot’s other main supporters, Iran and Hezbollah, a fact that leaves Israeli officials decidedly wary of their Russian counterparts.

The Crisis Group report quotes an unnamed Israeli foreign ministry official as saying, “It’s hard to trust them. They tell us they are not selling weapons to Hizbollah, but we know for a fact that they do. Their policies are cynical. They are not an enticing mediator.”

According to defense analysts, fighting alongside Russian troops has also helped turn Hezbollah into a more effective terrorist army with better tactics, strategies and the aforementioned weapons.

In this picture released by the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, right, speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

Yet there is an understanding among some in Israel that, while not enticing, Russia is the only mediator that has significant leverage over Iran and Hezbollah.

“The problem is that, on the Israeli side, we don’t all realize who’s boss. We are not a superpower. They are,” an Israeli defense official told the Crisis Group.

Israel has already had to maintain a close, if uneasy, relationship with Moscow due to its involvement in the region.

S-400 Triumf missile defense system at the Russian Hmeimin military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015. (Paul Gypteau/AFP)

After Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jets that had invaded its airspace, Moscow installed an S-400 missile defense system in Syria. With the system, one of the world’s most advanced anti-aircraft batteries, Russia could monitor the overwhelming majority of Israel’s active airspace, including Israeli military flights.

Or, as one Israeli official told the Crisis Group, “A fly can’t buzz above Syria without Russian consent nowadays.”

This came as a shocking blow to the Israeli Air Force, which had, until then, enjoyed unquestioned aerial superiority in the region, and required Jerusalem and Moscow to set up a hotline to prevent any potential conflicts between the two militaries.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) meets with the Russian army Chief of Staff Valery Grasimov in Moscow, Russia, on September 21, 2015 (Israel Defense Forces)

Jerusalem has publicly maintained “red lines” that, if crossed, will prompt an Israeli military intervention in Syria, notably including attempts to manufacture and transport advanced “game-changing” weapons to Hezbollah. In recent years, the Israeli Air Force has conducted approximately 100 airstrikes against apparent violations of these “red lines,” the outgoing head of the IAF told the Haaretz newspaper in 2017.

Despite this high volume of activity in Syria, there have been no significant clashes between Israel and Russia in light of the coordination efforts of the two countries.

Israel has worked diplomatically with Russia to secure a buffer zone around the southwestern Syrian border, in which Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shiite militias would not be allowed to maintain a presence.

The border area has naturally been of significant concern for Israel, which is loath to see Hezbollah set up military positions along the Golan Heights to join the significant infrastructure it has already put in place in southern Lebanon.

In this photo released on Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian government forces stand on their checkpoint as busses, background, wait to evacuate Syrian rebels and their families from Beit Jinn village, in the southern province of Daraa, Syria. (SANA via AP)

Last month, the Syrian military, with some assistance from Shiite militias, regained control over the area of Beit Jinn, or Beit Jann, which is located just 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Israel’s Mount Hermon ski resort.

Though it is currently focused on retaking the area of Idlib in northwestern Syria, this coalition is likely to soon focus its attention on the Quneitra and Daraa regions, near the Israeli border.

Though Israel secured its buffer zone for that area, the Crisis Group report notes that it would be relatively easy for these groups to get around the restriction, “for instance by integrating the fighters into the Syrian army or simply having them don its uniforms.”

The advocacy group argues that before the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis moves toward the southwest, Russia should work to negotiate an agreement between it and Israel.

There is still time for Russia to try to broker a set of understandings to prevent a confrontation, protecting both its investment in the regime and Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese lives

The Crisis Group notes that Israel’s insistence that Iranian and Iran-backed troops stay out of southern Syria will be the most difficult to negotiate, as Hezbollah and the Shiite militias would not be inclined to accept it and could easily cheat by disguising themselves as Syrians.

However, the authors say this could be resolved by getting Russia to agree to prevent Iran from setting up the types of infrastructure most concerning to Israel, like a seaport through which the Islamic Republic could carry out attacks against Israeli natural gas fields, an airport to transport weapons to Hezbollah, or a factory for the production of precise missiles.

“There is still time for Russia to try to broker a set of understandings to prevent a confrontation, protecting both its investment in the regime and Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese lives,” the Crisis Group wrote.

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