Iran, Israel pose greatest threats to stability in southern Syria
While the situation in Syria seems stable at the moment — at least as stable things can be in what the conflict in Syria has wrought — prospects for continued calm are not promising.
The ceasefire agreement reached by the United States, Russia and Jordan in July could serve as a de-escalation framework for a larger agreement after the fall of Raqqa and the Islamic State (ISIS). US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are eager to make the current agreement stick and show that they can work together in a productive capacity, in part so they can thumb their noses at the US Congress and recent legislation that restricted Trump’s ability to ease sanctions on Russia.
The long-term success of any such agreement is in doubt, however, because of how the two countries’ proxies in the region — Iran and Israel — could respond to it.
Ultimately whether the agreement works boils down to how large the Iranian presence will be in southern Syria. Iran has no intention of leaving Syria once ISIS is defeated and the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad is crushed. The idea that southern Syria might turn into a clone of southern Lebanon deeply concerns the Israelis.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has voiced opposition to the Amman deal but this was likely an attempt to get the United States and Russia to pay attention to Israel’s concerns.
Netanyahu is in a tough situation. Domestically he has backed himself into a corner with his statements about southern Syria. Playing hardball on the issue may help him distract the Israeli public from his problems with a corruption investigation that could lead to Netanyahu being charged with bribery and fraud.
Yet he can only go so far in undermining any potential agreement because of Trump’s position in favour of it. Unlike his relationship with former US President Barack Obama, whom Netanyahu seemed to delight in annoying, the Israeli prime minister cannot afford to alienate Trump. As Netanyahu has probably noticed, Trump does not like it when people disagree with him and is so unpredictable it’s hard to tell what he might do in retaliation.
The shotgun marriage between Russia and Iran is tentative. Neither side really trusts the other but each party knows that they must work together for their long-term plans to succeed. Iran was incensed when Russia agreed to US and Israeli demands that it be left out of the negotiations that led to the Amman agreement. Russia’s willingness to allow Israeli warplanes to attack Hezbollah encampments in Syria has added to this distrust.
Russia is suspicious of Iranian plans in the Levant but, as noted above, the current marriage of convenience helps more than hurts Russia’s own plans.
Israel would probably be happy if US troops were placed in southern Syria as part of any agreement to create a buffer zone against Iranian and Hezbollah forces but this is highly unlikely to happen. The Trump administration has shown no desire to expand its footprint in Syria and Russia probably would not agree to such a stipulation in the first place. Once ISIS is defeated, the United States will probably not want a continued presence in Syria.
If the deal that comes after the fall of Raqqa can continue the de-escalation created by the current agreement, there is a chance that long-term stability can be created. If it fails, however, you can count on Iranian forces flooding into southern Syria, which will create a situation that Israel cannot afford to ignore.
In the end, any long-term plans that Trump and Putin might have for Syria could go up in smoke because of the potential for conflict between Israel and Iran.