What prompted this outburst was, of course, the destruction by the Israeli air force of an Iranian drone that had entered Israeli airspace, air strikes on the launch site — the T4 base outside Palmyra, manned by Iranian forces — the downing by Syrian air defense of an Israeli F-16 and the subsequent air strikes against 12 targets that the Israelis suggest succeeded in destroying or severely damaging up to 50 percent of Syrian air defense assets and some other sites controlled by the IRGC, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Al-Hamwi is not the only Syrian Sunni publicly expressing a desire for more Israeli action against Iran and its allies in the Syrian theatre. We also now find some Free Syrian Army elements in southern Syria starting to be more open about the sort of support they have received from Israel — in terms not simply of medical treatment (of which we have heard much) but of logistical support and facilitation of movement. This support is clearly designed to help the FSA not just against more radical elements of the armed opposition positioned to the south of Quneitra, but also against Syrian regime, Hizbollah and Iranian forces.
Deploying the drone from an IRGC-manned air base may have been designed to lure the Israelis into an ambush. But the outcome shows the extraordinary recklessness of such a step. Iran and Hizbollah have alternately played down the clashes and suggested that the downing of an Israeli plane changes the balance of deterrence in their favour. It doesn’t, of course — not when Israel can strike targets at will inside Syria, as it has shown it can with its previous attacks on Iranian unmanned facilities and now with its follow-on sorties against manned targets.
But the problem Israel — and by extension the US, the EU, Turkey and even Russia — have is that these strikes (part of a deterrent strategy Israel has historically called “mowing the grass”) have not stopped an inexorable extension of Iranian influence across Syria. Nor have they stopped the resupply and upgrading of Hizbollah’s missile arsenal. The tactical balance holds. The strategic balance is changing fundamentally.
Iran has made no secret of its desire to control a swath of territory from the Iraq/Iran border to the Mediterranean and down to the Golan Heights. Iranian and Iraqi Shia commanders tell us openly this is what they want. They make a display of meeting and greeting each other on the Iraqi/Syrian border. The Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, Mohammad-Reza Naghdi, then commander of the Basij, and Hajj Hashem, the Hizbollah commander in southern Lebanon, have all had themselves photographed over the past year or so near Quneitra, sometimes observing Israeli positions through field glasses. Qais Al-Khazali of Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq, and now Ibrahim Raisi, the hardline former presidential candidate, have most recently appeared on the Lebanese/Israeli border in company with senior Hizbollah commanders.
I hate to say I told you so (actually, I don’t!). But I did. I’ve been writing and speaking for three years now about the threat the Iranian garrisoning of Syria poses to regional stability and the probability of a regional conflict being sparked by the increasing proximity to the Golan Heights and the Israeli and Jordanian borders of significant forces from the IRGC, Hizbollah, some Iraqi Hashd Al-Sha’abi militias and the Pakistani and Afghan subalterns of Iran. And I have not been the only one. These forces are not leaving Syria. They have to stay to guarantee the Assad regime’s survival, the valuable equities its survival gives Tehran and the leverage that Tehran has and Russia doesn’t. But by staying they also virtually guarantee further clashes with Israel, which has made it absolutely clear it will not tolerate an Iranian or Hizbollah presence on or near the Syrian Golan and is fearful of a renewed Hizbollah aggression not just on its borders but inside them once the conflict in Syria is finally over.
Israel has sought help from the US and Russia in managing this dilemma. Neither has provided a solution — the US because it remains in important ways disengaged and Russia because it has other fish to fry and may be having trouble cooking them; to change the metaphor, like an overambitious juggler it is having increasing difficulty keeping all its policy balls in the air — especially managing the contradictions in its policies towards Turkey, the Kurds, the US, Israel, Iran and the Gulf. It may be that it doesn’t actually have the power of decision over the situation in Syria that some have claimed. So Israel has decided to take matters into its own hands. Since Iran shows no signs of pulling back, since a deconfliction zone between Israel, Jordan and their enemies in the Golan, the Hauran and the Jebel Druze is a joke in modern combat conditions and since Iran is unlikely to want to preserve the peace in southern Syria in a way the Assads — father and son — did from 1973 onward, this means in my view that war of some sort is almost inevitable.
We have empowered the clerical dictators through 14 years of permissive or confused US, European and Arab policies in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and the price is obvious. Now is the time to change the conversation.
Sir John Jenkins
This has been coming for a long time. We have empowered Iran through 14 years of permissive or confused US, European and Arab policies in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, where we have collectively made an impressive military effort from time to time, but without any clear policy goal. We let the Iranians colonise the Iraqi state. We have let Hizbollah transform itself from a regional defense force with a global criminal wing into a formidable and mobile transnational praetorian force (still with a global criminal wing). We throw the Iraqi Kurds under a bus because of their foolishness over the recent referendum but in the absence of any wider policy response other than sanctimonious sermonising leave the field clear for Iran to exploit. And as a consequence we are no nearer finding a sustainable policy response to a decade of Iranian advances through the institutions, territories and command structures of the greater Levant, plus a campaign of destabilization on the cheap in Bahrain and Yemen.
What’s done is done. But this will pose a serious dilemma for those states of the Gulf that believe their national security is also threatened by a resurgent Iran and do not think you can remove the threat simply by making nice with everyone. This could go lots of different ways. Iran and Hizbollah could decide that consolidating their power inside Syria, coopting the Kurds and excluding the US is the priority and seek to avoid a further direct clash with Israel that could escalate beyond their control, while continuing to probe for weakness. But miscalculations happen all too easily. And such a strategy would rely on Israeli forbearance — not a quality for which they are noted. Iran and its allies could unilaterally decide to restrict themselves to certain positions away from the most sensitive areas. But why would they do that when they continue to proclaim that Israel will cease to exist in 25 years, make such a show of their intention to retake Jerusalem and can hardly do nothing after 40 years of bloodcurdling threats? Equally, Russia and the US could decide that now is the time to intervene decisively to establish real deterrence and prevent a general conflict. But neither state seems prepared or — in Russia’s case — able to do so.
Pushing back Iran — in the best case exploiting its own overreach — is a generational task. Reconstructing Iraq is part of this and a good thing in itself; the recent Kuwait conference was important, as is the outreach by Saudi Arabia and others to key Iraqi politicians and to Najaf. But this will take sustained attention, a lot of money and even more time. And Iran will still take its cut. The same goes for Yemen and even more so for Syria.
So as a small contribution to this debate — while we are waiting for the major actors to take the stage and with an eye on what small steps others could take — I suggest that we could at least address one often overlooked factor in this overdetermined drama. In my view this is precisely the moment for a renewed and serious collective effort to achieve a Palestinian state. That would remove any spurious excuse Iran, Hizbollah and Assad might have to attack or provoke Israel; it would allow for the gradual normalization of political, economic and security relations within the region; it would simplify the lines of communication between those who see Iran as one of the two most serious contemporary threats to the broader stability of the wider Middle East and North Africa (the other being the various forms of revolutionary Islamism); and it would test the claim of the great Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, that peace is not the absence of violence but the presence of justice.
I have no doubt that, apart from the two parties principally concerned, the US is the one essential actor in all this, but I am skeptical about its current direction of travel and I do not believe in yet another fake peace conference. However, I do think there is an opening for a joint Arab-European initiative to concentrate minds, agree and set out in detail the real benefits to all sides of a real deal and what each side would bring to the table if such a deal were concluded, and make Israel, the US and the Palestinians an offer they would be fools to refuse. That would at least change the conversation and make the Arab states, the EU and maybe the US again the makers rather than simply the consumers of policy in the region.
Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.