Israel should (silently) support a more flexible US policy towards the Syrian regime and the Russian presence in Syria, including the easing of sanctions on Syria, in order to decrease Assad’s dependence on Iranian support and to heighten the conflicts of interest between Moscow and Tehran.
The Status Quo
Since the spring of 2020, the Syrian civil war (which has become a theater of intervention for Iran, Turkey, Russia and the United States) has been in a state of prolonged standstill, with localized outbursts of fighting.
At the beginning of March, the Syrian army reconquered, with aerial Russian aid, the town of Saraqib and the northern part of the M5 highway (Syria’s main transportation route from north to south). Since 2012, the northern areas, from Aleppo to the Turkish border, are under control of the rebels and Turks. Since then, the situation has stagnated.
The Syrian army, with Russian and Iranian aid and foreign Shiite militias controls the central, most-populated parts of the country (most of the area west of the Euphrates river, which the French used to call “Useful Syria”). Turkey continues to deepen its control and influence over major parts of the north and northwest of the country. Kurdish forces, supported by the residual American presence, continue to control most of the area east of the Euphrates.
In all parts of Syria, subversion and sabotage efforts continue with varying intensity, whether by ISIS remnants, which continue to act against Syrian and Kurdish forces; or by groups of Sunni rebels, some of them radical Islamists, fighting for control and dominance of the territories under Turkish (direct or indirect) influence and control.
The policy of the regional and international players regarding the Syrian issue has also remained the same throughout 2020. The US has deepened its pressure on the Syrian state, partly because of the Caesar Act and Congressional initiative to expand the sanctions policy, due to the oppressive character of the Assad regime. Meanwhile, the Trump administration openly promoted attempts by the Kurds to seize Syrian energy resources in the east of the country. These moves have caused significant deterioration of Syria’s economic situation.
On the other hand, Russia has continued its strategic support of the Syrian regime by maintaining its military presence in the country and by promoting a small number of economic ventures (with limited resources, a situation made worse by the collapse of energy prices). However, these ventures have not led to any significant improvement in Syria’s economy. Iran and Turkey have continued their policy of direct intervention and support of proxie forces in the country. Some of the Arab states have sought to expand their contacts with Damascus, hoping to loosen the Iranian grip on Syria. But the US remains strongly opposed to such efforts, hoping that pressure on Assad will lead to some sort of regime change.
Israel continues to focus on the “Campaign Between the Wars,” on thwarting Iran’s determined effort to expand its military presence in Syria to transfer weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Alongside its military effort, Israel also has sounded-out Washington regarding some political-economic flexibility towards Syria, to allow rapprochement between Syria and some of the Gulf countries. Washington has completely refused to consider this.
The change of administration in Washington presents an opportunity to reconsider policy toward Syria. There is room to examine trends and make adjustments, regarding policy goals and the ways to achieve them. Israel should share such updated perspectives with the new administration, at all levels – with the State, Defense, and Treasury departments, and with key Congress members.
Reviewing Israel’s Goals in Syria
The main goals of Israeli policy in Syria have been clear for years: Driving Iranian forces out of Syria, disrupting weapons smuggling to Lebanon, and keeping the peace along the Golan Heights border. Aware of its limitations, Israel long has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war. Although Israel has supported, for a considerable amount of time, several armed factions in the Syrian border area, this support is the outcome of a void created following the Syrian army’s retreat toward Damascus, and of the immediate need to keep the peace along the border. When the Syrian army decided, with Russian backup, to reconquer the area, Israel refrained from taking significant steps to prevent this.
It is important to acknowledge that the goal of removing all Iranian forces from Syria will be hard to achieve; indeed, it may be unachieveable. In practice, the more modest, achievable goal is obstructruction of Iran’s effort to build-up Hezbollah with strategic weapons.
Iran has been present in Syria for many decades, dating back to the Shah (who looked for allies in the Arab world to counter the Iraqi threat). The first significant step of the Islamic Republic of Iran came after the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, followed by the Syrian decision to support Tehran at the expense of Hafez al-Assad’s tough rival, Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). A further leap in Iranian closeness to Syria occurred when the Syrian civil war began, and Assad desperately needed assistance.
From 1980 to 2011 relations between the two countries were marked by rivalry and conflict of interests. In Syria, Iran tried unsuccessfully to widen its influence (“Shiite-ization,” against the Alawi secular regime). In Lebanon, Hafez al-Assad worked to ensure Syrian hegemony, even at the expense of Iran and Hezbollah. Since Hafez al-Assad’s death in 2000 (and Bashar Assad’s need of Hezbollah as a legitimizing force), and later on with the Syrian exit from Lebanon in 2005 after heavy international pressure, and even more so since the breakout of the Syrian civil war in 2011 – the Syrian-Iranian relationship underwent significant change. Syrian dependence on Iran became a critical component of the regime’s struggle to survive.
Israel’s military effort against the Iranian presence in Syria has achieved significant results and prevented the entrenchment of weapon systems and strategic weapons development on behalf of Iran in Syria. The “Campaign Between the Wars” effort also has substantially decreased the rate of weapons transfers to Hezbollah through Syria. But at the same time, this effort has affected the depth of Syria’s strategic ties with Iran. Iranian delegations continue to arrive in Syria; Revolutionary Guard units and pro-Iranian militias continue to operate in Syria (given Syria’s need for assistance in fighting ISIS and pro-Turkish militias in the northwest of the country); and Iranian oil continues to flow into Syria, largely because of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy.
In view of all this, it is worth reconsidering whether the goal of Iran’s complete withdrawal from Syria is realistic. The reality is that there will be no total withdrawal of Iranians from “Bilad al-Sham.” Therefore, it would be wiser to redefine policy in terms of “minimizing Iran’s influence and presence in Syria” and eliminating its ability to use Syria as a base for assault on Israel. Israel should pursue a dual policy, with carrots alongside sticks, to bring about a situation where Syria is not utterly dependent on Iranian support to ensure its survival; where Assad can regain relations with the West if he curtails Iran’s freedom of action in his territory.
Refreshing the Military and Political Toolbox
In order to achieve these goals in the Syrian arena, Israel should adopt the following policies.
1. On the military level, there is room for further expansion of Israel’s aerial strikes on Iranian targets in Syria; not only on weapons depots, advanced weapon systems and local weapons development infrastructure, but also on elements within the Syrian regime identified by intelligence as loyal first and foremost to Tehran. Such elements can be located in the Syrian army (for example in the 1st Corps) and in the corridors of power in Damascus (including the presidential palace) and exposed, and even systematically eliminated. This would signal to Assad that it is better for him remove government and military officials who are identified with the interests of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
2. At the same time, on the political level, Israel must recognize that it missed an opportunity during the Trump administration to be an “advocate” in Washington for rapprochement between Arab countries (mainly, Gulf countries) and Damascus. Israel may be less relevent in this regard in the Biden administration, since Biden’s people are likely to build their own direct channels of communication with Arab countries. The Israeli interest is to avoid interfering with this rapprochement, and even to advance this with concrete, supporting intelligence assessements and advice. At the same time, this matter can be placed on the agenda as part of normalization discussions in the Middle East, as well as in dialogue with Israel’s longtime peace partners (Jordan and Egypt) and with Israel’s partners in the eastern Mediterranean.
3. In addition, Israel must support significant economic measures aimed at reducing Syrian dependence on Iran. First and foremost, the Syrian regime can be allowed re-access its energy sources in the east, whether with the cooperation of some Gulf states that will restore Syria’s infrastructure, or alternatively by transferring them to Russian control. In addition, Israel should support the re-opening of Syria’s southern border crossings (Nasib and al-Tanf) for goods, while establishing a Russian military presence there to prevent the transfer of weapons to Syria or the move of hostile forces that would threaten Jordan. (The American-Russian-Jordanian agreement of 2018 could be the basis for this.)
These military, political and economic policies are intended to enable the refinement of clearer lines in terms of Israel’s policy in the Syrian arena. Any attempt of Iran to deepen its military and economic presence in Syria will be met by aggressive countermeasures on Israel’s part. On the other hand, Israel should welcome political and economic measures that regional and international actors may take to alleviate Syria’s economic plight and therefore counter, if only somewhat, Syria’s dependence on Iran.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.
Photos: Gage Skidmore, khamenei ir, kremlin.ru, Chatham House