Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the Mossad Director Yossie Cohen asserted separately on Sunday, Aug. 13, that wherever the Islamic State is thrown out, Iran moves in.
This assessment was borrowed from American evaluations of the situation in Afghanistan and Yemen. It does not work as a guiding principle for Israeli security in its immediate neighborhood – certainly not for Syria.
Cohen was correct in stating in his briefing that Iran presents Israel with its greatest peril, and that the Islamic Republic has used its 2015 nuclear accord with the six world powers as an accelerant for developing nuclear weapons.
But that does not make the situation in Syria analogous to Afghanistan, as an examination of the facts show.
ISIS was pushed out of parts of northern Syria by the Syrian army, Turkish troops, Syrian rebel groups and Kurdish militias. But neither Iranian forces, nor Hizballah or the Shiite militias, imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight under Iranian officers, have moved in to take their place.
Neither have they been allowed a role in the ongoing offensive for the capture of Raqqa. And no Iranian or Shiite presence is to be found in Tabqa, northwest of this former ISIS capital in Syria, or Al-Bab north of Aleppo. Both towns were wrested form the jihadists by other forces.
Had Netanyahu and Cohen noted that Iranian and Hizballah took part in some of the battles fought by Russian and Syrian army forces, they would have been correct. However, it must be said that the pro-Iranian forces’ participation in battles against ISIS was never more than a by-product of their overriding objective, which was to preserve Bashar Assad in the presidential palace in Damascus. Today, they are closer than ever to achieving their goal in view of the crumbling resistance: the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey this month signaled they were pulling their support from the Syrian anti-Assad insurgency.
The Netanyahu government’s fundamental misconceptions on the Syria question dates back to 2012, the second year of its civil war, when Israel’s security and intelligence chiefs insisted that Bashar Assad’s days in power were numbered.
This misjudgment prevailed. It was repeated only a few months ago by Maj. Gen. Hertzi Halevy, head of AMAN (IDF military intelligence). It led to another fundamental error, which was Israel’s decision not to impede Hizballah’s entry into the Syrian war in 2013 to shore up Assad’s rule. The thinking then was that Hizballah would come out of the brutal conflict weakened and in no shape for waging war on Israel. To the contrary, Iran’s Lebanese surrogate has come out of the Syrian conflict as a hardened terrorist legion, in better shape than ever before and, moreover, rewarded for its critical support for the ruler with a say in Syria’s post-war future and the strategic asset of an anti-Israel warfront stretching out of Lebanon across into Syria.
Paradoxically, the Russian air force and special operations units are helping Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces to vanquish Syrian rebel and ISIS groups, while latterly US special forces began helping Syrian, Lebanese, Iranian and Hizballah forces cleanse the Syrian Lebanese border of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front presence.
Two world powers are therefore backing the Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah lineup against the extremists. Iranian and the pro-Iranian Hizballah are being enabled to reach Israel’s borders – not as a result of the removal of ISIS but the open door provided them by the coordinated actions of two world powers.
The ratio of one enemy (Iran) replacing another (Isis) is not just an over-simplification of the situation, but a misreading.
Netanyahu certainly meant what he said Sunday that “Our policy is clear. We strongly object to the military entrenchment of Iran and its surrogates, led by Hizballah, in Syria, and we shall do what is necessary to guard Israel’s security. That is what we are doing.”
But what exactly can he do against the jeopardy to Israeli security resulting from the process underway in Syria, which is supported not just by Russia, but by Israel’s most stalwart strategic ally, the United States, and supportive Saudi Arabia?