By Afro-Middle East Centre
After seven years of the raging Syrian civil war, Israel has emerged from the shadows to launch a campaign in Syria, continuing its battle with Hizbullah, Iran and Syria, while also looking to capture more Syrian territory along its borders. Soon after Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu returned from a trip to Russia, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) attacked a branch of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre in Syria’s Hama province on 11 September. The centre is located in the town of Masyaf, sixty kilometres east of Tartus, where the Russians maintain a naval repair base. Israeli strikes in Syria are not uncommon. In this context, however, Israel hopes to eliminate any possible challenge to its activities in Syria, hence the recent (more than normally-) aggressive tone against Iran. Unlike Russia and the USA (two of the major external actors in Syria), Iran (with Hizbullah) and Turkey are uninterested in having Israeli interests protected. The quest to malign Iran in the region, and discredit its presence in the Syrian conflict is the reason that Israel’s double-edged campaign seeks to create a buffer zone from the border of Golan Heights further into Syria, and ward off any present and future threats from Iran and Hizbullah.
Relations between Israel and its northeastern neighbour have always been rocky. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel occupied the Golan, Syrian territory which lies within an area of 444 square kilometres – from the Yarmuk River in the south, Jordan Rivre and the Sea of Galilee in the west. m Syria’s military and diplomatic attempts to force Israel out of the Golan have failed on numerous occasions, including after the 1973 war; in 1981 Israel illegally annexed two-thirds of the Golan Heights, and has been building settlements there since. Over the past five years, the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan has changed hands between the Syrian regime and rebel forces.
Today, the area controlled by Israel is inhabited by approximately 40 000 people, of which half are Syrian and the other half Israeli Jewish settlers. The Golan Heights is a strategic asset that supplies Israel with 30 percent of its fresh water from the Jordan river. The Golan also has fertile agricultural lands for multiple products and is useful for the production of renewable energy.
Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Israel’s occupation of the Golan has remained in the background, allowing Israel’s ambitions to extend its control beyond two-thirds of the Golan Heights to fester. This is seen starkly in Israel’s demands to extend its current twenty-kilometre ‘buffer zone’ into Syria. Israel wants to expand the buffer zone to sixty kilometres from the border on the Golan Heights to the west of the road connecting Damascus and the city of al-Suwayda in southwest Syria.
This buffer zone in Syria would mirror Israel’s ‘Good fence’ policy employed in Lebanon when the civil war broke out in 1975. There, Israel established military and social networks with local Lebanese groups, assisting them to fill the vacuum that had been left by the government in terms of service provision as a way to sustain its occupation of Lebanese territory. In Syria this ‘good fence policy’ aims to consolidate Israeli control over Syrian territory as Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s position strengthens in the six-year civil war, and Hizbullah and Iran become increasingly entrenched.
In June 2017, Israel provided funding and aid to certain Syrian rebel factions – particularly Fursan al-Joulan (Knights of Golan), through the Golan. Fursan al-Joulan boasts 400 fighters and is close to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly the al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra), and the Israeli effort to support it was set up in 2013 by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Fursan al-Joulan has effectively maintained security on Israel’s behalf in Syria-controlled Golan in exchange for the group receiving $5 000 a month, as well as food and medical supplies. Israel seeks to thus alter and shape the outcome of the Syrian civil war, in a way that ensures that it continues its occupation of the Golan. Israel also seeks to realise its interests is by getting the USA and Russia to uphold these interests in Syria via the ceasefire deal negotiated in Astana in Kazakhstan by Turkey, Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime and opposition groups in Syria.
With the recent agreements between Russia, Iran and Turkey, supported by Jordan and the USA, Israel saw an opportunity to expand its control of Syrian territory further, and its sporadic air-strikes in Syria are part of this agenda. The strikes, which Israel claims targetHizbullah arms convoys or warehouses, have been the biggest indicator of its involvement in the Syrian war. These airstrikes had previously resulted in strong diplomatic reaction from Russia. Earlier this year, Moscow summoned Israel’s ambassador in protest, to show that it did not appreciate Israel’s actions against a Russian partner, Iran, which has played a strategic role in supporting the Asad regime. However, this Russian attitude seems to have changed more recently with a seeming romance between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Israeli prime minister Netanyahu.
Astana de-escalation deal
The Russian role in Syria has been critical to the survival of the Asad government, and has strengthened the regime’s position in the war, as well as created the possibility of a ceasefire deal that will see Turkey, Russia and Iran act as guarantors in different zones in Syria. Such a deal, which has been accepted by the USA, has spurred Israel’s campaign against what it calls a ‘permanent Iranian threat’ in Syria.
The Russia-Iran-Turkey de-escalation zones deal was signed in May in Astana, Kazakhstan, and calls for an end to hostilities between (most) rebel groups and Syrian government forces in four regions. The first zone – Idlib province in the northern region, including north-eastern areas of Latakia province, western areas of Aleppo province and northern areas of Hama province – will be monitored by Turkey; the second – Rastan and Talbiseh enclaves in northern Homs province – and the third – which includes eastern Ghouta in northern Damascus – will be monitored by Russia. The fourth zone – including areas along the Jordanian border and parts of Dar'a and Quneitra provinces – will be monitored by Iran, and this is what the Israelis are upset about.
Israel justifies its demand for a stake in the Syrian pie by focusing on this fourth zone, and its supervision by Iran. Hostilities between Israel and Iran date back to the Iranian revolution in 1979, when Iran altered the previously friendly relations with Israel by ceasing ties with the latter and openly supporting the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation. More recently, Israel has focused on Iran’s nuclear programme, which, it claims, threatens its existence and stability in the Middle East. Additionally, Israel regards Iran as an enemy for its support of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas, and the Lebanese party Hizbullah.
As part of its campaign to realise greater Israeli control of Syrian territory, the head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad, Yossi Cohen, was dispatched to the USA to warn US President Donald Trump of ‘the imminent threat of Iran’s presence in Syria’. In addition, Netanyahu himself flew to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin while the latter was holidaying in Sochi. Netanyahu informed Putin (and the world) that Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent an expanded Iranian military presence in Syria. Israel values its relations with Russia and recognises the strategic position of Moscow in the Syrian civil war. With this trip, Netanyahu hoped to gain Russian support to curb Tehran’s role in Syria in the future.
The Russians, trying to appear unfazed by Israel’s warning and requests against the ‘threat of Iran in Syria’, have not fully given in to Israel’s demands, but have made certain concessions. Although not agreeing to the extension of the buffer zone, they have, for example, propose a deal that Israel will find beneficial: keeping Iranian troops away from the south of Syria, and preventing them from maintaining a permanent presence in Syria. The deal might not fully give Israel what it wants, but effectively accedes to part of Israel’s request.
Despite being slightly rebuffed by the Russians, and not evoking sufficient American interest, the Israeli campaign will not easily back down, with Netanyahu hoping to insert Israel into the de-escalation deal, and expanding the Syrian territory that it controls. In July this year, a ceasefire deal brokered between the US, Russia and Jordan was widely welcomed by Israel. This deal – also hailed by Jordan – covers parts of Dar’a, Quneitra and western Suwayda, and is set to continue to secure the Jordanian border, which closed in June 2016. Under the deal, groups fighting against Iranian and Syrian forces were asked to cease fighting in the area by their US backers. They have also been asked to return artillery and anti-tank missiles. Israel prefers this agreement to the Astana deal, which recognises Iran as the monitor of areas along the Jordanian border, Quneitra and Dar’a. This zone seeks to create more of a de-militarised zone than a de-escalation zone, warding off the presence of any military hardware (belonging to regime or opposition groups) in the south, thus lifting the threat of an attack on Israeli assets in the Golan.
The Syrian civil war has been characterised by a complex web of involvement by and relations between foreign states. Despite a myriad of attempts to find a solution to the crisis, only the Russian-sponsored Astana (Kazakhstan) process has, thus far, yielded any results – modest as they might be. One of those outcomes has been the de-escalation deal that seeks to create ceasefire zones monitored and supported by Russia and Iran – which are major players in the war and have strengthened the Asad regime, as well as Turkey – which has backed the Syrian opposition. Israel sees in the de-escalation plan an opportunity to advance its own interests – particularly the extension of its territorial control further into Syria – in addition to its occupation of the strategic Syrian Golan Heights. It is using the fact of Iran’s role in the plan to, first, attempt to stymie Iran’s involvement in Syria for the future, and, second, to attempt to justify its own bid for control over Syrian territory. It seeks to thus lay the foundation for a long-term plan of expanding territory beyond Golan into Syria.
Although the USA usually readily supports Israel’s ambitions in the region, it is not an architect of the Astana deal, and has to defer to Russia. It is unclear whether the latter will ultimately give in to Israel’s requests. Although Russia and Iran are currently allies, Moscow is also concerned about Iran’s role in the region being elevated through a resolution in Syria, and might be willing to allow Israel to fulfil some of its ambitions in the interests of keeping Iran in check. Support from Russia and the USA on the issue will also embolden Israel to continue building settlements on Palestinian lands.