Is a War Between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah Imminent? (Part Two)
This is the second part in a two-part series. To view part one, click here.
The recent violation of Israel’s air space by an Iranian drone and Israel’s retaliation against Syrian and Iranian targets prompted many observers to suggest that the growing regional tension resulting from such incidents may precipitate a war between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah, and perhaps inadvertently with Syria as well.
I disagree with this prognosis. I maintain that none of the players involved want to engage in a war that will inflict tremendous destruction and casualties without realizing any sustainable long-term gains. This, however, does not preclude an accidental war resulting from an unintended incident or miscalculation.
Israel views Iran as the number one enemy bent on its destruction and is determined to destroy any Iranian military bases in Syria in close proximity to its borders. Israel will also continue, as it has done in the past, to attack convoys that transport sophisticated arms from Iran to Hezbollah via Syria.
Israel accuses Iran of regularly engaging in subversive activity to undermine its security and instigating the Palestinians to violently oppose the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade over Gaza. Israel believes that Iran is determined to acquire nuclear weapons once the sunset clauses of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal) expire, particularly the first phase, after which Iran will be allowed to gradually resume (with some restrictions) the enrichment of uranium. For this reason, Israel is making supreme efforts to convince the Trump administration, as Prime Minister Netanyahu put it, to “fix it or nix it.”
Although Israel is confident that it can win any military confrontation against its surrounding enemies, it has concluded that there will be no long-term benefit by initiating preemptive attacks on Iranian, Syrian, or Hezbollah forces. To destroy Hezbollah’s stockpile of nearly 150,000 short- and medium-range rockets, which are largely embedded within the civilian community, Israel will have to conduct, at least in part, carpet bombings which can result in the death of tens of thousands of civilians. Israel will preemptively strike, however, only if faced with an imminent threat.
Israel has no animosity against the Syrian regime as such and would rather see Assad remaining in power as long as he limits Iran’s maneuvering room and achieves a clear understanding with Iran that he will not allow Syria to become the battleground between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah.
To prevent any misunderstanding or miscalculation, Israel should make it clear that it wants to stay away from the war in Syria. That said, Israel must strongly iterate to Iran and Hezbollah via Russia that if faced with any threats, it will retaliate with massive force disproportionate to any provocation from either party.
Israel should openly define what constitutes provocative actions, which from the Israeli perspective include violation of its air space, firing rockets, or infiltration of terrorists emanating from Lebanese or Syrian territory. Israel should make it clear that any of these violations constitutes a red line that neither Iran nor any of its surrogates can commit with impunity.
Israel should further make it unequivocally clear to Tehran through Russia that it will destroy any military installations near its borders, and if Iran were to counter-attack, Israel will not hesitate, as Netanyahu recently stated, to bomb specific targets on Iranian soil. In any case, the Israeli public is attuned psychologically to the Iranian menace and expects their government to take whatever actions necessary to inflict unacceptable damage to the enemy.
Russia is the most dominant power broker in Syria, and no solution to Syria’s civil war or establishment of any new political order between the various factions can occur without Russia’s consent. Russia has had a presence in Syria dating back nearly 50 years, when Moscow established its naval base at Tartus, and has always had the ambition to fill the vacuum created by the Obama administration, which opted to largely stay out of the conflict in Syria.
The Kremlin seized the opportunity to come to the aid of the Assad regime, which was on the verge of collapse, by dispatching ground troops as well as the air force to bomb many of the rebel and ISIS targets, which has significantly turned the tide of the war in his favor. Russia now uses its dominant presence in Syria as a springboard from which it can exert greater influence throughout the Middle East, a position it has been pursuing for the past ten years.
Even Israel, who traditionally seeks a green light from the US before it undertakes any major military strikes, must now receive Russia’s consent before it attacks Iran’s and Assad’s military installations in Syria. Although Russia and Iran joined hands to defend Assad, Russia wants to limit Iran’s influence in Syria – partly because it wants to remain the main power broker in Syria, and partly because it wants to prevent any violent confrontation between Israel and Iran to avert further destabilization of Syria, which could undermine its strategic interests.
To be sure, Putin wants to secure Russia’s special position in Syria and is determined to prevent Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, and even the US from spoiling his gains and influence, and will not allow any of the antagonists to intervene without Russian cooperation.
Thus, Russia is in a unique position to prevent any miscalculations that could lead to unintended war, and to that end Putin must establish rules of engagement to which all the combatants need to adhere, unless faced with an imminent existential threat:
First, Russia must make it clear to Iran that it will not be permitted to establish any military bases near the Israeli borders.
Second, it should send a clear message to Hezbollah that it must not be tempted to provoke Israel, as in this regard, Russia cannot prevent Israel from conducting a massive retaliation which could undermine Moscow’s strategic interest.
Third, Putin must prevail on Turkey to stop its incursion into Syrian territory and disabuse Erdogan of his quest to subdue the Syrian Kurds, as this will only further aggravate and prolong the conflict in Syria. Putin is convinced that Turkey wants to maintain a permanent presence in Syria, which is a recipe for continuing violence between Turkish forces and the YPG, yet another destabilizing factor.
Fourth, Putin must now seek US involvement in the search for a permanent solution to Syria’s civil war. The US remains a dominant regional power and even though Russia is the main power broker in Syria, the US’ support remains critical if for no other reason than it has close ties with Israel, and that it might be drawn into in any future war between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah.
The US: Sadly, the Trump administration, which has largely followed Obama’s policy toward Syria, is now confronted with a new reality. The US under Trump does not seem to have a clear strategy as to how to deal with the conflict. Moreover, limiting American direct involvement in the conflict only to deter Assad from using chemical weapons against his people, as Trump has done once before, has had little impact on the course of the war and on Assad’s behavior, as long as he could count on Russian support.
The current situation in Syria is different for four reasons: 1) President Assad, who was excluded by the Obama administration from being a part of the solution, is assured of remaining president and will certainly be “re-elected” once new elections are held; 2) Iran’s direct involvement in Syria’s civil war and its ambition to fully entrench itself in the country is a fact that Israel views as a threat against its security; 3) even when the civil war comes to an end, the sectarian conflict and the rivalry for power will continue to haunt the country for years, which is a recipe for destabilization that impacts the US’ regional allies; and 4) much of the country lies in ruin and would require tens of billions of dollars for reconstruction, which of necessity requires the US’ leadership role to raise the necessary funds.
To prevent miscalculation that could lead to an unintended war between Israel and Iran/Hezbollah, and perhaps the inadvertent involvement of Syria, the US must:
a) Maintain the presence of American troops and advisors that were dispatched to Syria to fight ISIS, and even further augment them to provide the US the leverage it needs to play an important role in the search for a solution, in coordination with Russia.
b) The US ought to restate its commitment to Israel’s national security. Additionally, notwithstanding the present strategic defense coordination between two countries, the Trump administration should consider issuing a statement, along the line of its commitment to NATO. The US should state that any major attack on Israel will constitute an attack on the US. This will certainly deter Iran from even contemplating any major hostilities against Israel.
c) Ideally, Trump should focus on amending the Iran deal in cooperation with the other five signatories, and do so through diplomatic channels rather than by issuing an ultimatum to withdraw from it completely by May, which will only heighten regional tensions. Knowing Trump’s disdain toward Iran and his characterization of the deal as being “the worst ever,” he may still withdraw from the deal. At a minimum, however, he should not reinstate the sanctions so that the other signatories will have the opportunity to modify it through negotiations.
Otherwise, the precipitous withdraw from the deal will only unsettle the Iranians and may well prompt them to abandon it altogether, which could potentially lead to regional nuclear proliferation that the US and its allies in the area want to avoid. Moreover, at a time when the US wants to negotiate denuclearization with North Korea, it should not unilaterally revoke the Iran deal and expect the North Koreans to trust the US to live up to its commitments.
The irony is that none of the players involved directly or indirectly in the civil war in Syria want to escalate the conflict by threatening Israel, which will stop short of nothing to protect its national security, especially if the threat is deemed existential. Every party also knows that regardless of how much damage Israel may sustain in such a war, it will emerge victorious while inflicting perhaps unprecedented destruction on its enemies.
In the final analysis, any resolution to a conflict is measured by the prospective losses or gains. There is nothing here to suggest that any of the parties involved foresee a long-term strategic gain that can justify a catastrophic war. A war could erupt as a result of miscalculation, but this can be avoided. Russia in particular and the US must cooperate and lean heavily on their respective clients to prevent such a miscalculation.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.