Whose stability and security are we talking about?
Since the ceasefire accords following the October 1973 war, Syria has never been a source of worry to Israel. As a matter of fact, the Syrian regime was very keen to ensure that nothing, not even a spontaneous outburst by an Arab citizen sick of the Israeli occupation, would disturb the ceasefire. The Syrian regime made sure that sort of frustration was channelled through the Lebanese-Israeli border alone.
Syria’s admirable show of self-discipline and restraint produced a pro-Syrian regime lobby among elite political and military circles in Israel. This lobby made sure the Syrian regime was spared from US and Western plans that had wiped out entrenched regimes in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.
The Syrian regime was aware of the paramount importance of Israel’s security to the world’s major powers. Just in case its attention lapsed momentarily, Rami Makhlouf, a Syrian business tycoon and maternal cousin of Syrian President Bashar Assad, reminded the world of that simple fact, declaring in April 2011 in the New York Times: “If there is no stability here [Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.”
Israel was not overly interested in the heated debate about the probable shape of Syria’s future regime. It could not care less whether the next Syria would be secular or Islamic, a confederation or separate states.
All the clamour and the number of cooks in the Syrian kitchen have never been a problem or hindrance to its agents in the field or its air force. Taking advantage of international immunity, Israel carried out assassinations and air strikes against targets of its choice, the latest of which was near Masyaf in Hama.
The perspectives and agendas of the United States and Russia have diverged many times and on many international issues but there is one thing both super powers always agree on: Israel’s security.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has become a frequent traveller to Russia, more so in fact than to the United States.
In September 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin was careful not to start Russia’s military campaign in Syria before reaching agreements with his Israeli “partner.” It was also out of concern for Israel’s security that Russia offered in 2013 to eliminate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons.
None of Israel’s actions inside Syria would have been possible without coordination with or complete cover from Russian air defence in Syria. Now that the Americans are present on Syrian soil, nothing indicates a change in the rules of the game.
Russia’s planned arrangements for Syria suggest additional grounds for “surgical” operations in accordance with the interests of all countries in the region, especially Syria’s neighbours, and always with America’s blessings. Hence, the creation of “de-escalation zones.”
Iran’s influence in Syria is in direct conflict with the agendas of the various countries with stakes in Syria. The Trump administration has always condemned Iran’s presence in Syria and Jordan wants to keep Iran-backed forces in Syria far from its borders. Turkey is trying to find common ground with Iran on the Kurdish issue — neither want the establishment of a Kurdish entity anywhere in the region — and Israel considers the presence of Hezbollah in Syria an imminent threat that must be dealt with regardless of any future arrangements in Syria.
It does not look like Washington and Moscow have reached a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s future role in Syria or the entire region for that matter. Both countries are contending with other divisive issues between them but Putin knows that his long-term ambitions in Syria will collide with Iran’s agenda there.
For the time being, both Russia and Iran need to cooperate to counteract the impression created and propagated by the Trump administration that Russia is in charge of dealing with “the Iranian condition in Syria.” This is what was said to the Israeli security delegation during an official visit to Washington last month and why Netanyahu went to see Putin.
Following Israel’s failed talks with the United States and Russia, analyses and comments in the Israeli media suggested that an Israeli military intervention in Syria had become unavoidable, regardless of Israel’s agreements with Washington and Moscow. Such an intervention would reshuffle the cards in Syria so that Israel becomes a formal part of any agreements about Syria’s future.
Such a move by Israel within the current context is highly risky but it seems that Israel is too anxious to wait for the development of an antidote to the Syrian sickness. Israel’s military manoeuvres in northern Israel might as well be the rattling of chains needed to draw everybody’s attention.
However, Israel needn’t worry too much for its security will always be a fundamental issue at stake for any plans for the Middle East by either Washington or Moscow.
It’s interesting, then, how Makhlouf’s remark that there will be no stability in Israel without stability in Syria has flipped around to become an Israeli security axiom, namely that there will be no stability in Syria as long as Israel’s security and stability are not guaranteed.