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2018 Annual Assessment

The number killed in the Syrian civil war is approaching half a million. Four million people have migrated as refugees and seven million are displaced persons in their own land. UN data (June 11, 2018) indicate that, since the start of the year, 920,000 people have been forced to leave their homes. After seven years of fighting, Assad, supported by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, remains in power and is growing stronger. He has regained control of two-thirds of the territory he lost, while ISIS has lost nearly all the Syrian territory it once controlled. The West has essentially reconciled itself to Assad’s continued rule of Syria; he is currently being touted as part of the solution – the lesser evil. The West’s response to Assad’s further use of chemical weapons in Duma (April 11, 2018) demonstrates accommodation to his victory: the U.S., France, and the UK chose to strike chemical-weapons infrastructure targets (April 13, 2018) without endangering Assad’s continued rule.

Assad’s bolstered self-confidence forms the background to his changing patterns of response to Israeli Air Force strikes; he has started operating anti-aircraft systems that led to the downing of an Israeli fighter jet (February 10, 2018). The IDF retaliated by destroying a significant portion of Syria’s aerial defense systems.

Despite warnings that Putin would sink into the Syrian quagmire, the Russian president managed to achieve his main objectives – strengthening Assad, laying the groundwork for Russian influence in the resolution of the Syrian crisis, and making Russia a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. Moscow has proven its loyalty to its allies and is not too shy to use force, in striking contrast to U.S. conduct as it is perceived in the region.

Iran’s plans to fill the vacuum left by seven years of war and the collapse of ISIS, and to make Syria an Iranian protectorate and military front with Israel, have come under increasing difficulty but have not been halted. The difficulty consists of active Israeli efforts to enforce “red lines” in Syria and, in particular, to prevent Iran and its proxies from gaining a foothold in southern Syria, to prevent the establishment of a broad-based and accurate missile system in Syrian territory, and to keep Hezbollah from acquiring strategic weapons. In addition to its preventive military efforts, Israel wants Russian assistance in keeping Hezbollah and Iranian military forces from approaching its Golan Heights border, and in ejecting them from Syria altogether. Israel has by now managed to forge an effective working relationship with Russia, even persuading Moscow to honor its red lines vis-à-vis Syria and not to interfere when it enforces them. However, Moscow is still aligned with anti-Israel forces in Syria (Assad, Iran, Hezbollah), and continues to engage in a “superpower” competition with Israel’s sole ally – the United States. The deployment of Russian-made S-300 and S-400 missiles in Syria underscores the caution required of Israel if it is to continue operating in Syria without coming into conflict with Moscow.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has affirmed that Israel categorically opposes any arrangement that would allow an Iranian/Hezbollah presence in Syria. Thus, at the end of an August 23, 2017 discussion with Putin, he noted that he had given Putin an assessment, according to which Teheran wants to establish a contiguous geographic presence up to the Mediterranean Sea, and to deploy military forces – including naval vessels, fighter jets and thousands of soldiers – to permanent bases in Syria. Netanyahu told the Russian president that Iran is trying to dominate Syria via Shi’ite militias, as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and that “[w]e will act as necessary according to our red lines.”8 At the Munich Security Conference (February 18, 2018), Netanyahu actually threatened Assad directly, warning that if Assad invites Iran into Syria, he would thereby be changing Israel’s stance and “challenging his own position.”9

In reality, Israel’s ability, acting alone, to fully achieve its declared objectives in Syria – i.e., removing the military presence of Iran and its allies – is limited. This is due to the involvement in the conflict of a global power such as Russia (whose interests do not align with those of Israel). This limitation will be valid as long as the U.S., as a countervailing superpower, does not actively back Israel up. However, the U.S. shows no inclination to deepen its involvement in Syria. Accordingly, Trump has left Russia to manage the rounds of ceasefire and de-escalation zone talks, confining U.S. involvement (to Israel’s only partial satisfaction) to the strip of territory near the Jordanian border and the southern Golan Heights. At a Trump-Putin meeting (July 16, 2018), both leaders stressed their commitment to Israel’s security and announced that they had agreed to safeguard Israel’s border with Syria in accordance with the 1974 Israel-Syria Disengagement Agreement.

In response to the Putin-Trump understandings, Netanyahu affirmed that Israel was not opposed to the Assad regime: “We had no problem with the Assad regimes […] The heart of the matter is preserving our freedom of action against anyone who acts against us. Second, the removal of the Iranians from Syrian territory.”10

At the time of this writing, Syria is entering a new phase in which the Assad regime, with Russia’s help, is gradually re-enforcing its sovereignty in southern Syria. The emerging picture is that Israel will be forced to accept this development, in exchange for Russian assurances that Iran and its proxies will be kept out of southern Syria, that the 1974 Israel-Syria Disengagement Agreement will be in force in the Golan, and that Israel will retain its freedom to act against the establishment of an Iranian military presence in the rest of Syria. In this context, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and its military chief, Valery Gerasimov, made a surprise visit to Israel. In the aftermath of their meeting with Netanyahu (July 23, 2018), the media was briefed that the Russians had promised to keep Iranian forces in Syria 100 kilometers away from Israel’s border.

The coming months will show whether Russia is going to uphold its commitments, and whether Assad will allow Iran and its supporters a presence – overt or covert – near the border with Israel. Based on what Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has had to say, no illusions should be entertained regarding the ease of meeting Israel’s demand for the complete eviction of the Iranian presence from Syria. Lavrov has asserted (July 4, 2018) that Iran is one of the key forces in the region, making it “absolutely unrealistic” to expect it to abandon its interests.11