In Syria’s never-ending conflict, Russia and Israel now plotting against Iran
There are few palatable options for halting the Syrian conflict. Parties representing the aspirations of Syrians have long since been battered into submission, leaving unsavory street fighters like Bashar Assad, Israel, Hezbollah, Russia, Daesh, Turkey, and Iran and its pro-Tehran militants vying for influence over the smoking ruins of this shattered state. The best the region can hope for is that those who come out on top don’t make matters infinitely worse.
From such low expectations, how can we assess the latest deal thrashed out between Israel and Russia? Months of intense diplomacy, including a succession of meetings between Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, culminated in this new understanding, which was finalized during Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s trip to Moscow, while America and Europe sat irrelevantly on the sidelines. Russia’s pledges to Israel appear straightforward: The removal of all “non-Syrian forces” from southwest Syria. Lieberman categorically affirmed that this is about preventing “Iran and its proxies from becoming entrenched in Syria.”
This deal facilitates the commencement of Assad’s operations to crush the rebellion in Syria’s south; a poignant prospect, given Daraa’s central importance in triggering the 2011 uprising. This new phase heralds dire consequences for civilians, many of whom prefer permanent displacement to life under a resurgent Assad regime. This growing focus on the southwest has exacerbated tensions in the Syria-Israel-Lebanon border region. Moscow watched with alarm as Israel stepped up strikes against Iranian assets. Putin wants to draw down his costly military commitments, having achieved his principal goals, including naval facilities and a stronger Russian voice in Middle Eastern affairs. Conflict between Israel and Iran’s proxies would jeopardize all this.
While Russia and Iran shared a stake in retaining Assad in power, their diverging ideological and strategic agendas were fated to clash, particularly given Russia’s warm relationship with Israel. As Moscow’s ambassador to London, Alexander Yakovenko, pointed out to me: “Half of Israel’s population is Russian,” including Lieberman himself. If Tehran is angered by Putin’s pivot towards Netanyahu, it must simmer in silence because it needs Russia’s help in sabotaging America’s efforts to throw Tehran’s economy back into the deep freeze through renewed sanctions.
Assad can threaten to kick US forces out of Syria, but in reality this is a discredited, bankrupt and impotent regime that would instantly collapse if abandoned by its Iranian and Russian benefactors
How will this new deal be implemented? As the Royal United Services Institute’s Jonathan Eyal noted, Moscow has “much less influence over Iran than the Russians would like us to believe.” Putin created a monster by enabling the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ dominant role in Syria for so long. While Russia undoubtedly possesses the military might to cut Iran down to size, it may lack the political will to do substantively more than compelling Iranian forces to adopt a lower profile. Let’s not forget Putin’s hollow promises to enforce the liquidation of Assad’s chemical weapons program.
With Donald Trump and Israel pondering aggressive measures to counter Iran’s regional posturing, Tehran may indeed prefer to temporarily reduce the visibility of its paramilitary profile on Syrian soil, while discreetly consolidating its influence via other means, just as it did in Lebanon and Iraq — through funding institutions, cultivating supportive politicians, media and ideological influences, and wielding a veto over regime policy. Tehran’s ayatollahs know how to bide their time awaiting more favorable circumstances, while breathing a sigh of relief at having avoided seeing their militant assets systematically destroyed by vastly superior Israeli firepower.
A veteran Western diplomat expressed to me his concerns that Israel would seek to widen its control of the occupied Syrian Golan region, just as for years Israel maintained its fiefdom in southern Lebanon. Hawkish Israeli army would argue that such a move safeguards Israel from rocket attacks, while following the lead of Turkey, Iran and others in staking out zones of control upon the Syrian carcass. However, just as Israel’s presence in southern Lebanon provided optimum toxic conditions for Hezbollah to expand and flourish, such a move would worsen Syria’s chronic instability, serving as a rallying cause for pro-Iranian forces.
Assad’s so-called new “Law No. 10” unilaterally dispossesses a huge proportion of Syrians of their property rights by impossibly obliging displaced families to immediately register their residences with the authorities. The levelling of entire urban districts gives the regime a clean slate to dole out land to loyalists and divest everyone else of their rights as citizens. Russian diplomats assure me of Moscow’s determination to follow through on its pledge that Syrian elections will eventually happen. Through this ruthless demographic engineering, Assad will perhaps succeed in redefining what it means to be Syrian, allowing a return to the glory days of farcical elections that re-crowned him as president with 99 percent of the vote — with anyone who would dare to vote against him automatically excluded as “traitors and terrorists.”
Assad can threaten to kick US forces out of Syria, but in reality this is a discredited, bankrupt and impotent regime that would instantly collapse if abandoned by its Iranian and Russian benefactors. Assad claws back territory only because all other sides are comparably exhausted. By disenfranchising the population, his regime guarantees renewed phases of conflict once rebels with nothing left to lose regroup and regain strength.
The dispossession and destruction of the Syrian nation is exponentially greater in scale than the Palestinian issue, which for 70 years has fuelled regional instability. Vindictive “victor’s justice” merely serves to bog Assad and his allies down in perpetual conflict, ensuring that it may be generations before Syria enjoys peace. Putin may be enjoying his moment of glory as Syrian deal-maker supreme, yet he remembers as well as anyone how the 1980s Afghan war brought the mighty USSR to its knees. If he insists on retaining his forces in a land where they have no business being, Putin will ultimately find the ground dissolving beneath his feet.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.