Is the Syrian triangle approaching a perfect storm?

Is the Syrian triangle approaching a perfect storm?

A Palestinian demonstrator confronts Israeli security forces following a protest in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
A Palestinian demonstrator confronts Israeli security forces following a protest in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
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Israel is operating militarily in Syria with increasing frequency and boldness in its ongoing efforts to contain Iranian entrenchment there and prevent Tehran from using the country as a route for transferring advanced weapons and ammunition to its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.
From an Israeli perspective, its northeastern neighbor has turned into a dangerous military playground and a “triangle of hostility” has developed between Israel, Iran and Hezbollah that is in danger of developing into a perfect storm.
According to SANA, the official Syrian news agency, during Israel’s latest military operations, carried out last week, an airstrike on Damascus airport killed five soldiers, injured scores and put runways temporarily out of commission, at least temporarily. The attack took place only weeks after a similar strike targeted the international airport in Aleppo, which also severely damaged runways.
What Israeli strategists have termed a “war between the wars” has become, with respect to Iran and its allies, a multidimensional confrontation, in terms of targets and theaters of operation, that are also affected by other developments in the international arena.
Israel’s foremost strategic priority remains the containment of Iran and, by extension, Hezbollah, which has become the most threatening arm of Tehran’s influence close to the Israeli border. Since the war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes and other military operations inside the country, targeting government positions as well as allied Iran-backed forces, in particular Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guard. These forces are in the country to support the survival of the Assad regime but are also exploiting the situation there to establish a presence closer to the border with Israel.
To be sure, some of the main protagonists involved in this protracted, low-intensity confrontation not only harbor conflicting interests but are also affected by chronically unstable domestic political systems, leading to even more belligerence in conducting their foreign affairs.
While Israel has, for at least two decades and with only partial success, set a high premium on stopping the Iranian nuclear program — whether through diplomatic maneuvers to encourage economic and other sanctions on Tehran to cripple its economy, or clandestine operations and cyberattacks — it has also discovered that one of the major, and most immediate threats, originates from Iranian sponsorship and arming of hostile activities against Israel along its borders.

Israel’s foremost strategic priority remains the containment of Iran and, by extension, Hezbollah, which has become the most threatening arm of Tehran’s influence close to the Israeli border.

Yossi Mekelberg

The most pressing issue to deal with is Hezbollah’s military build-up, which poses a threat to Israeli population centers and high-value strategic assets, and to which Israel’s best response is preemption and prevention, deterrence and, if worst comes to worst, massive retaliation.
As things stand, Israel’s gathering of what has proved to be very accurate intelligence, in addition to its superiority in the air, has enabled it to disrupt Hezbollah’s tireless efforts to stockpile an ever-increasing military arsenal, not only in terms of quantity but, even more disturbing, of sophistication.
However, Israel is far from able to thwart these efforts altogether. The very fact that a non-state actor is, with the support of another country, building up such menacing military capabilities with no transparency or accountability and constantly threatening a neighbor should deeply worry not only Israel but, first and foremost, Lebanon, and also the wider region as well as the international community.
Israel is perturbed not only by Iran’s proxies on its borders but also by the presence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in southern Syria, which could easily turn into an actual and menacing Iranian front against Israel.
Additionally, Israeli strategists hope that as the danger to the Assad regime recedes, the constant cost in terms of Syrian lives and the damage inflicted by military actions on Syrian infrastructure will eventually drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran. However, this scenario, despite its intrinsic logic, might take longer to materialize than Israel would wish for.
Furthermore, as Russia becomes increasingly stuck in the quagmire of its war against Ukraine, it might not be able to afford to maintain the levels of attention and commitment to “policing” the skies and other military activities in Syria that it has managed so far.
Moscow has been double-dealing in the war in Syria, and in its relations with Iran more generally, allowing Israel to operate relatively freely in Syrian skies to limit Iran’s efforts to entrench its presence in the country, without giving Israel carte blanche to directly confront Iran and Hezbollah, who have been very useful to Russia in helping to keep the Assad regime in place.
It is an open question whether Russia’s massive miscalculation in Ukraine might lead Israeli decision-makers to calculate that their country can now operate more freely in Syria without angering Moscow.
The general view is that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s demagogical threats to harm Lebanon’s southern neighbor have more to do with domestic Lebanese politics and efforts to keep his paymasters in Tehran happy than with having any actual intention or plan to carry out these threats.
He understands full well what Israel’s response would be should Hezbollah attack Israeli civilians or strategic interests, including the Karish gas field, where Hezbollah is attempting to hijack a maritime dispute between Lebanon and Israel to fashion itself as the defender of Lebanon’s territorial integrity.
However, considering the arsenal of sophisticated weapons that his organization has amassed and its improved ability to operate drones — which, according to London-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, prompted Israel in July to completely destroy a drone factory near Damascus that was using Iranian technology — it would be foolish to ignore Nasrallah’s reckless rhetoric.
Israel’s confrontation with Iran and its proxies is constantly expanding and has both diplomatic and military facets. The former include Israel’s efforts to persuade Washington to refrain from signing an updated nuclear deal with Tehran under the current terms of the proposed agreement, which does not offer an alternative solution for stopping Iran’s march toward nuclear military capability, let alone preventing its subversive activities in the region.
Meanwhile, the regime in Tehran is not doing itself any favors with its president’s comments that “there are some signs” that the Holocaust happened but that the issue requires more research. Not only is this an offensive, insensitive show of utter ignorance, and above all a needless provocation, but it aggravates an already volatile situation in which both countries are confronting each other on multiple fronts.
It might be argued, repeatedly, that none of the sides in these hostile relations is interested in a full-blown confrontation — but their actions and rhetoric might eventually lead to one, regardless.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg


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