The opening skirmishes of a catastrophic new conflict
This is what global dereliction of duty looks like. When the international community shrugged its shoulders and walked away from the Syria conflict — having concluded that diplomatic or military solutions were too much effort — it became inevitable that this carnage would suck in neighboring states, ultimately reaping far-reaching consequences for these same world powers that had shunned their moral responsibilities.
For five years the world pretended not to notice as about 200,000 Iranian proxy forces were deployed across Iraq and Syria, all the way across to the Golan Heights. Meanwhile Hezbollah tightened its stranglehold on the Lebanese state and waded into Syria. As Israel reciprocally beefed up its own military posture, a titanic conflict became simply a matter of time.
The humiliating destruction of an IDF warplane by Syrian anti-aircraft installations (under Iranian and Russian “supervision”) is viewed by some Israeli hawks as a convenient pretext for crushing Iran’s proxies in Syria and Lebanon once and for all. Some Knesset members even accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of triggering these events to distract attention from the pending corruption probes against him. However, both sides appear hesitant to plunge off the precipice into all-out war. Israeli and Iranian statements have confusingly oscillated between pious aspirations to de-escalate the situation, and dire threats about consequences of further provocation.
Tel Aviv accused Iran of “playing with fire,” yet a spokesman was quick to assert that Israel was “not looking to escalate the situation.” Meanwhile, Netanyahu warned Putin that Israel would intervene to prevent further Iranian attempts to consolidate its position in Syria. Iranian officials studiously sought to distance themselves from these events, denying that an Iranian unmanned aircraft had entered Israel. Yet a military spokesman in Tehran crowed that downing the F-16 was a “clear warning” for Israel. Hezbollah declared that Israel’s actions had “swept away previous axioms,” forcing the conflict into a “new strategic phase.”
Israel has launched airstrikes inside Syrian territory on 26 previous occasions — each time followed by ineffectual admonitions from Assad’s regime that it would respond at “a time of its choosing.” All parties repeatedly declare their readiness for war: Israeli military officials threatened to send Lebanon “back to the Stone Age.” The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah ranted about raining missiles down upon Tel Aviv and pledged to mobilize transnational Shiite militants for a confrontation launched from sovereign Lebanese soil. Iraqi paramilitaries scarcely disguise their enthusiasm about the prospect of attacking the “Zionist enemy.” Hezbollah even arranged guided tours to the Lebanon-Israel border for prominent militants such as Qais Al-Khazali. Last week a senior Iranian official, Ibrahim Raisi (seen by some as Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor), was also treated to such a trip, theatrically proclaiming that “Jerusalem’s liberation is near.”
Iranian and Israeli saber-rattling puts Russia in an uncomfortable position. Netanyahu recently made his sixth visit in a year to Moscow, demanding that Russia constrain Iran’s freedom of action in Syria. There have been indications of growing Tehran-Moscow tensions: Both sides still enjoy mutual tactical interests in combining forces to carve out Syrian spheres of influence, yet their strategic aims diverge. Moscow considers Israel a close ally and its statement on Saturday calling on both sides to exercise “restraint” was a doomed attempt to steer a neutral course.
That Saturday’s incidents on Israel’s borders failed to escalate into wholesale carnage is only a temporary stay of execution. One day soon we will be waking up to a massive new confrontation whose eruption was all too predictable.
Iran’s deployment of unmanned aircraft in Israeli airspace, and Syria’s “massive” use of anti-aircraft fire against Israeli warplanes, calculatedly seek to wrong-foot Russia, giving pro-Iran militants greater freedom of action to pursue their own agenda. Israel’s response was likewise a “shot across the bows” for Moscow, signaling readiness to act decisively if Tehran was not reined in. Russia has used the Syrian theater to project strength in the region, yet these events make Moscow look ineffective and indecisive — particularly as any escalation would probably necessitate a hurried drawdown of Russian forces.
Israel has expressed exasperation at recent Syrian status-of-forces agreements that allow Iranian proxies to base themselves just 5km away from the occupied Golan Heights. Israel will certainly use threats of force to press its demands for clearing these forces out of this sensitive region. Another factor is Lebanon’s recent agreement with a French-Italian-Russian consortium for offshore oil exploration in areas claimed by Israel. Tel Aviv’s potent mixture of legal arguments and military posturing appear designed to unnerve Beirut into making concessions.
The fact that no party exploited Saturday’s escalation to plunge into a full military confrontation is an encouraging sign that neither side yet feels ready for a devastating conflict. However, we know from bitter experience that the killing would be highly asymmetric against innocent Arab citizens caught in the crossfire. In the aftermath of a major war we cannot trust the international community to play a constructive role in conflict resolution and reconstruction. The Trump administration is short-sightedly refusing to fund reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Arab Gulf states played a dominant role in rebuilding Lebanon in 2006, but today have less ready cash available. Iran will look after its own, but would happily leave Lebanese and Syrian citizens to starve.
With Hezbollah’s arsenal of upgraded missiles swelling to 100,000 warheads, and with Israel having stepped up its own battle-readiness, a conflict in 2018 would make the bloody carnage of 2006 look like a walk in the park. This war would be fought over an expanded battlefront, with an array of paramilitaries contributing to the fight, and America happy to sell Israel all the military playthings it needs.
Provocative and belligerent policies by both sides have produced a situation in which, even if neither side desires war today, Tehran and Tel Aviv have locked themselves into an inevitable path of confrontation. Iranian proxies have ceaselessly used anti-Israel rhetoric to justify de facto annexation of Arab lands, swallowing up 100 times more territory in Iraq and Syria than Israel stole from the Palestinians! Meanwhile it is inconceivable that Israel would passively observe the paramilitary build-up around its northern borders without preparing to strike.
If Russia, America, Turkey, the GCC, UN and EU were to spring into action, there is perhaps time to force all sides to step back from the abyss, reignite Syrian peace efforts, and contain Iran’s expansionist policies. Yet these powers lack the foresight, unity of purpose, or political will to do what is necessary. The recent Turkish incursion against US-backed Kurdish forces represents the moment when the Syria conflict descended from tragedy into farce.
The horrors of the Syrian conflict produced a global refugee crisis, bloodthirsty new brands of global terrorism, and chemical and conventional weapons proliferation challenges. Can world leaders maintain the transparent lie that this expanding and mutating regional war is not their problem?
That Saturday’s incidents on Israel’s borders failed to escalate into wholesale carnage is only a temporary stay of execution. One day soon we will be waking up, not merely to trivial skirmishes and threats, but to a massive new confrontation whose eruption was all too predictable, and perhaps even preventable — if we’d only been willing to act.
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.
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