Celebrating shallow victories in the Middle East only ignores dangerously mounting escalation

In the Middle East, one gets the feeling of watching a rerun of old events, with a new tragic twist each time.
February 18, 2018
A 2017 file picture shows Iran’s Army Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri (L) and other senior Iranian officers at a front line in the northern province of Aleppo. (AP)
Dogmatic lenses. A 2017 file picture shows Iran’s Army Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri (L) and other senior Iranian officers in the northern province of Aleppo. (AP)

The downing of an Israeli warplane over the Golan Heights by Iranian and Syrian forces was celebrated by pro-Iran and other radical quarters as a major victory ushering in a “strategic reversal” in the region.

This rash celebration ignores the mounting dangers. Unless Iran’s dangerous escalation of tensions in the region is not checked — and quickly — the price of such shallow victories could be very costly. And who is set to pay the price? The people of Lebanon and Syria.

The sudden rise in regional tensions that already have the Middle East on the edge of an explosive precipice comes after Tehran crossed a new line in the sand. Indications are that Iran tried a direct attack against Israel from a base near Homs, Syria used by Iran’s al-Quds Force.

Iran’s surprise assault on an Israeli position in the Golan Heights failed when the Israelis intercepted an unmanned aerial vehicle and attacked the Iranian base, destroying the command centre and a mobile launch vehicle.

Russian surface-to-air missiles supplied by Moscow to the Syrians were fired at Israeli planes, striking an Israeli F-16. In response, the Israelis destroyed SA-5 and SA-17 missile batteries in Syria.

The knee-jerk reaction to this precarious rise in tensions was to shout victory from the rooftops, a common trend in the Arab world. However, this reaction in such instances is narrow-minded and presents risks of an all-out escalation that could lead the region to a doomsday scenario in which there would be no winners. Such a mindset is stuck in the thinking of the 1960s and 1970s.

“That is potentially a game-changer and helps to explain the Israeli response, which was designed to leave no doubt with the Iranians that they are playing with fire,” wrote Dennis Ross, a former US State Department official who was the leading Middle East negotiator under several US presidents.

Because this is a potential game-changer, it should serve as a wake-up call for the Trump administration to get active in the Middle East. Ross, now a counsellor and William Davidson distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute, said ignoring Iran’s military participation and interference in the region would produce a much wider conflict that places the Israelis and Iranians in direct contact.

It is imperative that the violence is prevented from escalating. The Russians are the only power capable of imposing their dictum and flexing muscle in Syria so they must make their position clear to the Syrians and the Iranians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin could indicate — at the insistence of the Americans and Europeans — that the Iranians have gone too far in their irresponsible behaviour, which has placed Russian forces based in Syria in jeopardy.

Putin could pressure the Syrians and Iranians with Russian air support, which has allowed Syrian President Bashar Assad to remain in power and tilted the war in favour of the Syrian government. Without Russian air power, advisers of Iran’s al-Quds Force, with the Shia militias, including Hezbollah, would become vulnerable.

Experts ask whether Putin will acquiesce. They wonder if US President Donald Trump, who seems to have a soft spot for Russia, could convince Moscow.

Events in the region suggest the Middle East has rarely been closer to an all-out conflagration in which no one would emerge the victor — least of all the Lebanese and Syrian people. But when did the well-being of the local population get in the way of the area’s political leaderships?

Iran’s presence in Syria raises the stakes in a very dangerous game. Tehran’s leaders couldn’t care less if Israel were to retaliate against Syria for offensive actions initiated by the Iranian military forces there. Tehran would likely welcome the chance to confront Israel and test some of its new weapons, those locally made and those recently acquired from Russia.

When watching events in the Middle East, one gets the feeling of viewing a rerun of old events, with a new tragic twist each time. It would have to be hoped that, with time, the political leadership of some countries in the region would have matured but that is wishful thinking.