The Day after Tomorrow

The regional reality after the withdrawal of the US forces from Syria is in the process of being reshaped with Iran, Turkey, and Russia remaining as the primary triangle in the Middle East. Special column by Amir Rapaport on the implications to Israel's national security policy

Putin, Rouhani, and Erdogan at the Sochi Summit of February 2019 (Photo: AP)

The highly irregular announcement made by the IDF Spokesperson this week regarding the "uncovering" of a Hezbollah network that operated on the Golan Heights (mainly by collecting intelligence in preparation for a potential future operation) must be viewed in the context of a much larger picture of the processes taking place in Syria. The announcement was essentially a psychological warfare tactic, with which the Israeli media gladly cooperates. We will get to the real objective of this announcement later.

The overall picture is much broader than just the Golan Heights theater, and has to do, first and foremost, with the decision of US President Donald Trump to withdraw the US forces from the territory of Syria. Well, that was the original decision made as far back as late 2018. In the meantime, President Trump announced his intention to leave a small detachment in Syria – about 400 troops deployed in the northeastern part of the country, at a small base near the borders with Jordan and Iraq. But despite the fact that the US withdrawal no longer seems total and its timing is unclear, it is still a highly significant move, for which all of the players in the Syrian theater are preparing, including Israel – which is by no means the chief player.

The heads of the main countries involved in the Syrian situation – Russia, Turkey, and Iran – have met at the Russian resort town Sochi on February 15 to discuss the implications of the American move. Allegedly, the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, received an update on the details of that meeting (at least the details the Iranians were willing to share with him) during a subsequent visit to Tehran.

Just how complex the Syrian theater is in anticipation of the US withdrawal could be inferred from a discussion of this issue held last Friday during a joint morning panel of the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center (IICC) and IsraelDefense. Brig. Gen. (res.) Amnon Sofrin, formerly the Head of Mossad's Intelligence Division, stated that the withdrawal of US forces from Syria is a highly dramatic event whose implications are far-reaching.

Sofrin noted that Israel is currently focusing on an attempt to counter Iran's intention to consolidate its foothold in Syria and implement a program for converting the missiles Hezbollah possesses into high-precision missiles, but it is doubtful whether Israel would be able to fully accomplish its objectives. Meanwhile, the Iranians are preparing to develop the precision missiles in other locations, like Iraq and Lebanon.

Dr. Carmit Valensi, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Yakov (Yasha) Kedmi, formerly the Head of Nativ – an organization that endeavored to reinforce the connections with the Jews of the USSR, and Dr. Yossi Mansharof, Iran and Shi'ite Militia researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (JISS), focused on the perspectives of the USA, Turkey, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

According to Dr. Valensi, the decision to leave a small US force in northeastern Syria is nothing more than a token gesture and generally, the US withdrawal is great news for Bashar al-Assad, who is currently making exceptional efforts to consolidate his rule after eight years of civil war that ended – as far as he is concerned – in victory (thanks to the involvement of Russia and Iran).

Assad's primary challenge, after the American withdrawal, will be to dominate the areas vacated, where quite a few Shi'ite militia forces still operate.

According to Dr. Valensi, the Kurds stand to lose from the US withdrawal much more than anyone else. They bore the brunt of the fighting against ISIS and have now been betrayed by their major ally – the USA, just as they had experienced many times in the course of their history. After the US withdrawal, the Kurds will be at the mercy of Turkey, which regards the Kurds in Syria, located not far from the Turkish border, as part of the Kurdish terrorist network that operates within Turkey proper. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not expected to treat the Kurds in Syria with kid gloves.

Dr. Valensi stated further that Erdogan himself illustrated his importance as a chief player in Syria when he convinced President Trump to pull the US forces out in a telephone conversation between them. "The US withdrawal does nothing but good to Turkey," argues Dr. Valensi.

According to Yakov Kedmi, the United States and Russia are still the chief players in Syria, and the processes taking place in Syria must be viewed as part of the global picture as a whole. In the context of the strategic struggle between the US and Russia, Israel is of no consequence – zero importance. "The US has lost interest in Syria as it has much more important strategic matters to deal with than keeping forces in Syria. In the long run, China is the greatest enemy, and the main confrontation with Russia revolves around Eastern Europe, particularly Ukraine and Poland. For Putin, in the context of the global picture, he was interested in a Mediterranean naval base in Latakia and an airbase in Syrian territory. He achieved those goals easily, owing to one and a half squadrons of fighter aircraft that tipped the balance of the war in Syria. Now he is interested in long-term stability in Syria and he would not allow anyone to mar his accomplishment, not even Iran or Assad himself, or Israel."

Dr. Yossi Mansharof presented the Iranian perspective, stating "It may not be so obvious, but the US withdrawal is of immense importance to the internal stability of the regime in Tehran. The withdrawal provides a significant impetus to the Iranians, including a serious boost to the ego of the Iranian regime, to the point that they are bragging, presenting the withdrawal as a major Iranian victory and threatening that Syrian forces will harass the American stragglers remaining on Syrian soil."

According to Dr. Mansharof, the regime in Tehran is under serious internal criticism over the cost of the war in Syria and the sanctions renewed pursuant to the revocation of the nuclear agreement, but the accomplishment of the US withdrawal, which is accompanied by massive false propaganda (such as reports of the killing of dozens of Israeli soldiers in Iranian retaliation), helps the regime repel the criticism and change the general trend in its favor.

Dr. Mansharof further stated that the weakest link in Syria is Hezbollah. The Shi'ites in Lebanon have come to regard themselves as cannon fodder for the Iranians, and Hezbollah finds it increasingly difficult to recruit youngsters and suffers from serious budgetary difficulties.

The Golan Heights Network

When one takes into account the tangled web of interests of the active players in Syria, in anticipation of the US withdrawal, it is fairly obvious that the Hezbollah network on the Golan Heights is nothing more than a sideline.

The inflated announcement was consciousness-oriented. It was intended to indicate to Hezbollah that Israel is aware of its moves (a continuation of Operation Northern Shield, regarding which the public announcements were also inflated disproportionately), and mainly to embarrass Hezbollah opposite Assad, as the activities of Hezbollah on the Golan Heights are inconsistent with Assad's interests.

However, all of the players in the Syrian theater have much more important matters to attend to in anticipation of the withdrawal of most of the US forces, so everyone will promptly forget this recent announcement by the IDF Spokesperson.

A Tense Month

This is much more significant than a Hezbollah network on the Golan Heights: as the general elections in Israel draw nearer, the risk of a flare-up in one of the sectors increases.

The recent incidents at Temple Mount, around the Bab al-Rahma place of worship, are just the kind of explosive material that can set everything ablaze at a time that would be problematic for Israel but optimal for the Palestinians. For this reason, the Head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, hastened to depart for Jordan in an attempt to find a solution to the issue.

The incidents in all of the sectors, including the Gaza Strip sector that never calms down, constitute the first trial for the new Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. In internal discussions he conveys an attitude that is slightly more militant than the attitude of his predecessor, Eizenkot (according to objective witnesses, the differences are minor, so there is no major change in the IDF's recommendations to the political echelon, for the time being). Internally, Kochavi has just conveyed an assertive leadership message when he took severe measures against the chain of command of the IDF Paratrooper Brigade following the recent drowning of a warfighter in a flood in the northern area of Israel.