In the past, when Israeli jets have targeted military convoys linked to Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside the regime, the Syrian government has warned of grave consequences and threatened to retaliate at the appropriate time. But both the regime and Hezbollah have been careful not to get dragged into a confrontation with Israel.
The timing of the Israeli attack is telling. It followed clear Israeli objections to a deal between the US and Russia, agreed in Amman in Jordan in July, to implement a cease-fire in southwest Syria. Full details of the agreement have not been disclosed, but it is thought to limit the presence of Iranian backed militias in that area that borders Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Amman requested, and apparently received, guarantees that non-Syrian government forces will respect a 30 to 40 km distance from its borders. The same should apply to Israel. But Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made his displeasure at the deal public on a number of occasions.
In August, he dispatched his Mossad chief to Washington to deliver Israeli concerns. It is not clear what Israel wants, but it is obvious that it is worried about a long-term Iranian presence in post-war Syria and Hezbollah’s access to advanced missile technology. Netanyahu himself flew to the Russian resort of Sochi on Aug. 23 to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and present his case, but he returned empty handed.
As much as Netanyahu has tried to shake the Russian alliance with Tehran, and by extension the apparent support from Moscow for a Hezbollah presence in Syria, his efforts appear to have failed. The Israeli press disclosed that Moscow had put pressure on the UN Security Council to remove reference to Hezbollah and its military activities in southern Lebanon from the final draft resolution on the UNIFIL mandate last week.
Despite the official Israeli stance that it has no preference on the outcome of the Syrian conflict, it is naive to believe that it is not following military and strategic developments with keen interest. Its dubious ties to extreme rebel groups in southwestern Syria raise questions about its motives and objectives. Certainly, a weak and divided Syria that is engulfed in chaos for years would suit long-term Israeli interests.
For Tel Aviv, the Syrian regime remains technically at war with Israel, even though the Golan front has been quiet for over four decades. The two sides have fought indirectly through proxies a number of times, starting with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and most recently, in 2006, with Hezbollah.
The attack shows Israel’s concern over its enemies’ presence in Syria, but it will not weaken Iran and Hezbollah’s influence.
A regime collapse in Syria would create a geopolitical upset for the region, including Israel, but its survival thus far has presented a more difficult set of challenges. The Russian military intervention in 2015 changed the dynamics of the conflict. The US recoil from the Syrian conflict, which was started by President Barack Obama and continues under his successor, has firmly established Moscow as the power that has the final say over the future of Syria.
Aside from this, Iran and its proxies were instrumental in paving the way for a regime comeback when the Syrian army was on the verge of defeat. It is not clear where Moscow stands on Iranian ambitions to create a land corridor between Tehran and Beirut, via Baghdad and Damascus; something that presents Israel with an existential challenge.
The recent Israeli airstrike was meant to send messages in various directions.
Despite absolute control of Syrian skies by Russia and its deployment of a sophisticated air defense system, Israeli jets were able to hit their target without hindrance. Some reports suggested that Israeli jets launched the strike from Lebanese airspace. The strike is meant to underline Israeli readiness to take pre-emptive action in Syria regardless of third party agreements that do not meet its security concerns.
But the strike does not change the new geopolitical reality in Syria. For now, Iran and Hezbollah, bitter enemies of Israel, are part of a new power structure that is taking shape there. This reality offers a number of scenarios for future confrontations. Certainly, recent Israeli military exercises designed to simulate a war with Hezbollah underline its apprehension over the group’s presence in Syria along with archenemy Iran.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.