Despite global vows of support, Israel stands alone against Iran in Syria
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Analysis

Despite global vows of support, Israel stands alone against Iran in Syria

Many countries, including Bahrain, are siding with Jerusalem in this week's flare-up. But even US seems unwilling to take concrete steps to thwart Tehran's entrenchment in Syria

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

A photo provided by the pro-regime Syrian Central Military Media, shows anti-aircraft fire rise into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases around Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018, after the Israeli military says Iranian forces launched a rocket barrage against Israeli bases on the Golan Heights, in the most serious military confrontation between the two bitter enemies to date. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)
A photo provided by the pro-regime Syrian Central Military Media, shows anti-aircraft fire rise into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases around Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018, after the Israeli military says Iranian forces launched a rocket barrage against Israeli bases on the Golan Heights, in the most serious military confrontation between the two bitter enemies to date. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

The international community was uncharacteristically supportive of Israel’s military strikes early Thursday against Iranian and Syrian assets across the southern part of the wartorn country.

Several countries condemned the Iranian rocket attacks that prompted the Israeli strikes — 20 rockets fired from Syria at northern Israel that either fell short (16) or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome batteries (4) — and stressed Israel’s right to defend itself.

That last phrase — Israel defending itself — is crucial.

Because if the Israeli-Iranian conflict escalates, possibly turning into a full-fledged war — and given Tehran’s apparent determination to entrench itself military in Syria at all costs, this scenario tragically seems increasingly likely — Israel will be on its own. No one, not even its best friends, will rush to its aid.

“The Iranian regime’s deployment into Syria of offensive rocket and missile systems aimed at Israel is an unacceptable and highly dangerous development for the entire Middle East,” the White House said in a statement.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which the IDF said was behind the rockets fire, “bears full responsibility for the consequences of its reckless actions.”

The US further urged Iran and its proxy armies, including Hezbollah, not to take any further “provocative steps.”

Washington also called “on all nations to make clear that the Iranian regime’s actions pose a severe threat to international peace and stability.”

By the time White House’s statement was issued, several important countries had already made similar statements, such as France and Britain.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry termed Iran’s attacks on the Golan “a severe provocation that we most strongly condemn.” Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to reiterate Berlin’s support for the nuclear deal. But she also condemned the Revolutionary Guards’ attack on Israeli positions and “urged Iran to contribute to de-escalation in the region.”

The most surprising expression of support, however, came from the foreign minister of Bahrain, a small country in the Gulf with which Israel has never had diplomatic relations.

“As long as Iran continues the current status quo of its forces and rockets operating in the region, any country — including Israel — has the right to defend itself by eliminating the source of danger,” Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa posted on his Twitter account, writing in Arabic.

The backing of a wide scale Israeli military action by an Arab leader is extremely rare, if not unprecedented. Al-Khalifa’s comment is even more astonishing given that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were believed to be aiming at military targets (as opposed to civilians) in the Golan — a piece of land Israel captured in 1967 and formally annexed in 1981, but which the international community still considers occupied Syrian territory.

(Even the White House statement Thursday spoke of an attack “against Israeli citizens,” careful to avoid describing the Golan as part of sovereign Israel.)

Notwithstanding the sympathetic words from various capitals, Israel stands alone in facing off an increasingly hostile Iran.

Embittered by the US administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal and Israel’s destruction of much of its military infrastructure in Syria, but emboldened by the Assad regime troops gaining ground in the country’s civil war and Hezbollah’s recent gains in the Lebanese elections, the Islamic Republic seems unlikely to relent in its campaign to attack the Jewish State.

The burden of defending Israel’s borders from rocket barrages, explosive-laden drones and other dangerous kinds of infiltrations will rest solely with Israel’s defense establishment.

The remains of an Iranian drone that was shot down by the Israeli Air Force after it penetrated Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

No one expects Bahrain or even Germany or France to put boots on the ground to help Israel fend off the Iranian enemy. And Jerusalem has never sought the assistance of foreign troops in its active defense.

But even the United States, as pro-Israel as it may be, will apparently invest very few resources — if any — in combating Tehran’s regional aggression as manifested in Syria.

Explaining his decision Tuesday to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal, President Donald Trump also cited Iran’s “other malign behavior, including sinister activities in Syria.”

Washington is now looking for “a real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat,” which, according to Trump, will include efforts to block Tehran’s “menacing activity across the Middle East.”

President Donald Trump announcing his decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, May 8, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Until such a deal is reached, “powerful sanctions will go into full effect,” Trump said. His speech, and subsequent comments on the matter, were notably devoid of any threat of military action. He certainly did not make a concrete commitment to act to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.

Trump knows that his political base in the US loathes the idea of American involvement in yet another war in the Middle East. He twice ordered precision missile strikes on Syrian targets after President Bashar al-Assad gassed his own civilian population, but always took great pains to state that he does not wish to get bogged down in a complicated ground campaign there.

Indeed, he has expressed the wish to withdraw the remaining American troops from Syria, most of which are in the country’s north and focus on fighting the Islamic State.

“Our forces are in Syria to confront ISIS, to defeat ISIS,” US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Andrew Peek declared Tuesday.

“The process of constraining and reducing Iran’s malign influence will be a product of financial and political pressure,” Peek said. Additional US priorities in Syria are advancing the “political process” (i.e. international efforts to broker a permanent peace agreement) and deterring Assad from the use of chemical weapons, he said.

Washington has no intention, Peek made plain, to take concrete steps to rein in Iran’s effort to entrench itself militarily near Israel’s border.

“Even with US support and a green light from a supportive president, the military campaign will fall primarily on Israel,” reasoned Amos Yadlin, the former head of Israeli military intelligence and currently the director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

“The international community needs to prevent Iran’s Quds Force from entrenching itself in Syria,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded on Thursday evening. “We need to unite to cut its tentacles of evil spreading there and everywhere.”

His call will likely go unheeded. When it comes to Iran in Syria, Israel has had to do it alone, and will have to do it alone.

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