President Trump's decision to pull out American troops from Syria is not the reason for the recent flare-up between Iran and Israel, which turned the Syrian territory into a very dangerous playground, one which can explode into a full-blown regional conflict, and in the near future.
The Trump decision was surprising, taken without proper consultation with the U.S. regional allies, and came at an inopportune time, but did not really change the fundamental balance of power in Syria, nor did it incapacitate the U.S. ability to function effectively in Syria, if need arises. The overall American military build-up in neighboring countries can take care of that.
Clearly, Russia, the global rival of the U.S., has had the right sense of what is unfolding following the Trump decision. Putin did not increase his country's involvement in Syria, nor does he claim victory there, due to the American announcement. So, the Syrian situation continues to be a powder keg waiting for the ultimate big explosion, and there is nothing new about that.
Of all the complicated conflicts there, none is more volatile than that between Israel and Iran.
It is all the making, planning, and ambition of Iran, which is trying to extend its Shi’I Muslim messianic influence from its own territory all the way to Lebanon, via Iraq and Syria, and as the Iranians make it abundantly clear, they do it as part of their grand plan to erase Israel off the map. A plan which they work hard on materializing, including its nuclear element, which is very much in operation, and regardless of the enormous economic price which they pay, which is causing growing popular protest in Iran.
This economic crisis has been dramatically intensified as a result of the Trump sanctions against Iran which seem to have a devastating effect. The Iranian regime should, if real politics is the measure by which decisions are taken there, realize that the sanctions have the potential of bringing it down. Yet, there are no signs that the militant factions which are dominant in Tehran are slowing down the effort to turn Syria into the launching pad of the final assault on Israel. In fact, the contrary is the case.
Israel, as can be expected, has no plans of disappearing, only because the Mullahs want it to happen, but beyond that, the Israelis feel that they possess the ability to stop the Iranian march towards their borders, and they should use this power as quickly as possible. Hence, the Netanyahu government has made a strategic decision — stop the Iranians, now and at all cost. And words here are matched by actions.
In the last year, the Israeli air force has conducted hundreds of attacks on sites in Syria used by Iran and its allies, which are used mainly to develop and store ground-to-ground missiles aimed at strategic locations in Israel. This is, by all accounts, a classic pre-emptive campaign, and it has had its advantages, by slowing down the Iranian build-up and exacting a heavy price from them, but it failed to stop this Iranian effort. That is to say, that the Israelis have not achieved their overall strategic goal.
The Netanyahu government adopted a policy of intentional vagueness about the attacks. Not officially claiming responsibility, though leaking enough to make it clear who was behind them. That was a precaution the Israelis took, in order to reduce the element of humiliation for the Iranians, but recently it has changed. Israel is now stating loudly and unequivocally that it is the policy and it is going to continue and escalate. New, hitherto unused weapons will be thrown to the campaign, and in high frequency.
The Iranians, for their part, are also changing their tune and actions, and they are sharpening direct threats to Israel, and launched a ground-to-ground missile aimed at a popular Israeli tourist site.
The missile was intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome system, but the message was clear. Iran is in it, Israel is in it, and the potential for a major eruption is there.
What makes it ever more dangerous is the fact that there are other players in the arena.
The Assad regime army, or what is left of it, the Iranian stooge Hizballah with their huge reservoir of missiles aimed at Israel, and on top of all that, Russia and the U.S.
The Russians are the ones who play a multi-faceted game. Putin, the former KGB guy, brings to the fore some of the old tricks. Israel is the culprit, if we are to believe the Russian rhetoric, but the Russians still maintain, in fact, increase the coordination with the Israeli army, designed to prevent unintended collision between the two armies. There was a tragic incident which led to the bringing down of a Russian intelligence plane with 15 casualties, an incident which the Russians used in order to blame Israel and try to restrict its freedom of aerial action in Syria. At the same time, the Russians show no real sign of undue anger aimed at the Israeli attacks on Iranian sites, while arguing in public that they cannot force the Iranians out of Syria.
That said, we come back to where we started — U.S. policy in Syria. It seems that Netanyahu has a green light from the Trump Administration to go after the Iranians in Syria.
The question is, what if the Iranians start using Lebanese territory through Hizballah, Iraqi territory through their local Shi’I allies and their own territory, in order to launch long-range, ground-to-ground missiles against Israel? Israel is ready for that scenario, and Secretary Pompeo stated, that the U.S. will not interfere if Israel would retaliate to attacks from Iraq, but there is nothing clear from Moscow, and there is still the lingering question about the Trump Administration — is the policy stated on Monday be in place on Tuesday?
Are we approaching the point where and when the Iranian build-up in Syria will be a trigger to a full-scale regional conflict? Yes, we do. Is it inevitable? No, it can still be avoided, but the keys for that are in Tehran. It is Iranian aggression which led us to where we are now, and this is the fundamental issue at stake. Counting on the good judgement of the regime there will be too much of a gamble for Israel, and Netanyahu has made it clear that he is determined to pursue his policy in Syria come what may. We are edging ever closer to that conflict, which has the potential of dwarfing in intensity and implications previous Middle Eastern conflicts.
Dr. Josef Olmert is currently a professor of political science and Middle East Studies at the University of South Carolina. Dr. Olmert got his BA and MA magna cum laude from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. Dr. Olmert is a native of Israel, where he taught at the Tel Aviv University, and fulfilled senior positions in the service of Likud governments, including dealing with senior American statesmen and diplomats. Dr. Olmert is the author of three books and numerous articles in academic magazines and media outlets all over the world. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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