Russian offer to restrain Iran turned down by Israel
BEIRUT - Residents of Beirut are accustomed to hearing the soft whisper of Israeli jets flying high and unseen over the Lebanese capital on routine reconnaissance flights but the deep rumble of low-flying aircraft that reverberated across the city in the early evening of July 22 pointed to something more ominous.
Less than an hour later reports trickled in that Israel had staged yet another strike against an Iran-related target in Syria, this time a suspected missile production facility, 5km north-east of Masyaf in Hama province.
The jets flew up the Lebanese coast before crossing east over the mountains to above the Bekaa Valley where long-range missiles were unleashed in Lebanese airspace, a common practice by the Israeli Air Force against targets in western Syria. This was the second air strike against the Masyaf facility in less than a year. The site is home to Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, which is responsible for research and development of nuclear, biological, chemical and missile technology and weapons.
Israel has staged multiple air strikes against Hezbollah-related targets in Syria since January 2013 and in the past year has expanded its targeting to include bases, weapons manufacturing and storage sites affiliated with Iran, an escalating — and risky — bid to oust the Islamic Republic from Syrian territory.
A day after the Masyaf strike, a Russian delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, met with Israeli officials regarding the Iranian presence in Syria. The Russians reportedly offered to ensure that Iranian forces and their allies would not be permitted within 100km of Israeli-controlled territory in the Golan Heights.
Israel reportedly turned down the offer, arguing that a buffer zone is insufficient because Iran has surface-to-surface missiles with ranges greater than 100km. Israel’s online Ynet News quoted an unidentified Israeli official giving a detailed list of Israeli demands.
“First of all, all the long-range weapons must be removed from Syria, precise weapons production must be stopped. Other strategic weapons, such as air defence, must be removed as well. The border crossings that allow the smuggling of weapons must be closed, including on the Syrian-Lebanese border where weapons are smuggled into Lebanon and the Iraqi-Syrian border through which weapons are smuggled from Iran into Syria itself,” the official said.
Although Israel rejected the Russian proposal, it is not clear how Moscow could have fulfilled the offer even if it had been accepted. Iran has invested heavily in Syria in terms of money and manpower. It has reportedly spent $15 billion-$16 billion in propping up the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad and another $700 million each year to Lebanon’s Hezbollah organisation and approximately $4 billion in economic support to Damascus.
Iran controls some 20,000 militiamen, drawn from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps troops, in Syria. Without the intervention of Tehran, Assad would likely have been ousted in 2013.
Iran’s support for Assad has provoked domestic protests with Iranians incensed that the government is spending billions of dollars on Syria when the Iranian economy is in free fall. For Tehran simply to abandon its investment in Syria — and that is on top of a strategic relationship between Damascus and Tehran that has endured since the early 1980s — is almost unthinkable.
To put the 100km buffer zone into context, it would mean that Iranian and allied forces would not only have to leave south-western Syrian but also Damascus (including the Shia pilgrimage site of Sayeda Zainab) and much of the strategic Qalamoun region north of Damascus, which is home to a multitude of military bases, some of which are used by Hezbollah for weapons storage.
Iranian and Hezbollah officials have repeatedly maintained they were invited to Syria by the Syrian government and will not leave until the mission of restoring the country to Assad’s control is achieved.
Sayyed Hashim Safieddine, the head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, on July 21 confirmed that Hezbollah fighters were operating in southern Syria as part of the offensive against remaining rebel forces and an affiliate of the Islamic State.
“So far, the resistance has not left southern Syria and the ones who are going to leave are the projects of the United States and Israel,” he said in a speech.
His comments contradicted reports that claimed Hezbollah had withdrawn from southern Syria ahead of the offensive in Daraa and Quneitra provinces. Sources close to Hezbollah in Lebanon say that, while there has been a drawdown in the numbers of fighters serving in Syria overall due to a decline in the conflict, several Hezbollah units lately returned to Syria to participate in the fight for the south.
The scale of the presence of Iran and its allies in south-western Syria can be seen in a map produced on July 17 by the Syrian civil society NGO Etana, which published on its Twitter feed highly detailed maps of the Syrian conflict. The map shows almost 70 positions manned by Iranian forces and their allies from observation posts, headquarters, storage facilities, troop marshalling locations and military compounds.
If the map is accurate, it suggests that the Iranians intend to stay for the long haul and it is doubtful Russia has the capacity — and perhaps the will — to dislodge them. A serious escalation between Israel and Iran and its allies in Syria would appear to be only a matter of time.