Israel’s diplomacy with Russia reaps benefits in Syria
Media reports suggest that Iranian forces, assisted by Hezbollah and Shia militias, are to withdraw from the areas they currently occupy near the Golan Heights in southern Syria.
This is a huge victory for Israel, whose position has been consistent: not to allow any kind of Iranian military camps to be set up near Israel’s northern border with Syria.
The Israelis have achieved this by getting Moscow on their side. After all, it is Russia who calls the shots in Syria. It has been doing so ever since September 2015, when it was invited by the Damascus government to intervene in the Syrian conflict.
In the past week, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman visited the Russian capital, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a telephone discussion with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Reports suggest that both sides agreed that Moscow would allow Jerusalem – albeit tacitly – to attack Iranian sites in Syria, as long as they were not tied to the Damascus government, which Russia supports.
Netanyahu is all smiles. Repeatedly he’s made his position clear: allowing Iran to set up military bases in Syria is a red line from which he won’t budge. And since May, there has certainly been a change in Russia’s behaviour towards Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
Think back to February, when the Israeli air force shot down an Iranian drone that had entered Israeli territory. Jerusalem responded with two waves of aerial bombardments that destroyed almost half of Syria’s air defence systems.
In a foreign ministry statement, Moscow objected to Israel’s violation of Syrian sovereignty, while ignoring Tehran’s provocation by sending in the drone in the first place.
Moscow would have known when the Iranian drone took off, as it was very close to its air-control centre in the Syrian city of Palmyra. Moscow chose not to give the Israelis any warning.
At the time, there was a lot of discussion and analysis about whether Russia had taken Iran’s side in the conflagration.
Compare this to last month’s 9 May Victory Day celebrations, when Netanyahu had pride of place, walking alongside Putin in Red Square during the ceremonial military parade. The following night, the Israeli air force carried out massive attacks against Iranian targets in Syria, it’s largest action there in decades.
This time, the Russians did not issue a strong statement of criticism against Jerusalem – and in so doing sent a tacit message to both the Israelis and the Iranians. The message: Russia is not in the pocket of Iran, and is prepared to turn the cheek when Israel strikes Iranian sites in Syria.
Jerusalem has repeatedly vowed to prevent Tehran establishing a permanent presence in Syria. In recent months, Jerusalem has carried out dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
Should the Russians have chosen to do so, they would have had the ability to protect such targets with their own air force and air defence systems inside Syria. But clearly they’ve chosen not to.
Israel has always respected Russia’s involvement in Syria, presumably because she sees it as a means of stabilising her northern neighbour. In return, Russia understands Israel’s security concerns.
Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear on repeated occasions that he will not shy away from using military force to keep Iran out of Syria.
No doubt, Moscow wants to avoid a military confrontation between Russia and Israel that would risk a direct clash with American President Donald Trump, who sits squarely behind Jerusalem.
Now, as the war in Syria winds down, Moscow is pushing for a peace settlement to be hammered out as soon as possible. Iranian advancement in Syria destabilises the chances of success. What’s more, the Russians are distrustful of Tehran.
The countries share a complicated and uneasy history. Moscow’s standing in the Middle East is the strongest it’s been in decades. It doesn’t want to upset relationships it’s worked hard to cultivate with other major powers in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran’s nemesis.
Politically, Putin doesn’t need the war in Syria to earn him brownie points back home. He campaigned heavily on his foreign policy achievements in the Middle East and North Africa ahead of the Russian presidential elections in March. However, now that he’s secured a fourth term in office, his attentions have turned elsewhere.
Iran, meanwhile, says it won’t withdraw its troops from Syria, arguing that, like Russia, it is in the war-torn country at the request of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But it’s questionable what the Iranians could do should Moscow pressure them to leave. Assad would listen to Moscow; and ultimately the Iranians would follow suit.
This week, Tehran announced that it was working to increase its uranium enrichment capacity in a threat to European powers who are desperately trying to salvage the 2015 nuclear deal after the Trump administration withdrew from it.
The country is trying to save face in what was a huge blow, not only for Iranian reformists, but also for the Iranian economy which is now bracing for crippling sanctions.
For Tehran to have to withdraw from Syria would be another major setback to the country’s prestige. It would also hinder the establishment of an overland stretch of influence from Iran to southern Lebanon.
It’s still too early to say whether Israel’s diplomacy with Russia will result in the complete removal of Iran from Syria. Israel’s success so far seems to have been only to keep Iranian forces away from her border.
The next step will be for Netanyahu to convince Putin that Iranian forces must leave Syria completely. It remains to be seen whether he can succeed.
- Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media, and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards.
True relevance of the anniversary of the Islamic revolution
This week, 40 years ago, Iran’s military stood down, guaranteeing the Islamic Revolution’s success.
After months of unrest and protests in cities across the country, a secular monarchy headed by Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, colloquially known as the Shah, was overthrown.
This dramatic turn-of-events would reshape the Middle East for decades to come, introducing a string of events, the implications of which are still being felt today.
Before the 1979 revolution, the Shah used much of the country’s oil and gas money to modernise the capital, Tehran. He largely ignored those living in the countryside, and came under increasing criticism for being out of touch with citizens, and serving as a puppet of Western governments.
It was a recipe bound for failure. The devout and the clergy became increasingly frustrated with his changes, and the expectations of the burgeoning middle class, especially students, could never be completely fulfilled.
In spite of the many reforms the Shah introduced, he could not stem the nationwide protests. In response, government forces killed thousands of demonstrators.
Although the unrest was initiated by radical student groups, religious fundamentalists gradually gained the upper hand. They rallied around the Shah’s primary critic, Islamic cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, who stood for everything the Shah did not. Khomeini envisaged an Iranian government founded on the principles of Islam, which was deeply opposed to the West. When he returned to Tehran from exile on 1 February 1979, he received a rapturous welcome.
Understanding what led to the revolution and the changes the country has undergone since is important in trying to map out future relations between Iran and Israel.
In a recent interview, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “We think of Iran as a state with an ideology, but actually Iran really is an ideology with a state.”
The cornerstone of the Iranian revolution, and one of its most important goals was the exportation of Shia Islam outside the country’s borders. Becoming a regional powerhouse remains one of the Islamic Republic’s overriding priorities. Even today, in spite of the country’s massive economic problems, in an effort to gain regional hegemony, it continues to prop up its proxies in Lebanon via Hezbollah (which it created), and in Gaza via Hamas.
This is also the most opportune way to attack Israel, a country Khomeini described in 1971 as having “penetrated all the economic, military, and political affairs” of Iran and turning it into “a military base for Israel”. The Iranian regime is relentlessly devoted to the destruction of the Jewish state.
It’s a far cry from pre-revolution days. Like the United States, Israel was closely allied to the Shah and before February 1979, the countries shared diplomatic and even some national security relations. Khomeini used this relationship to his advantage, arguing that Israel was a Western intrusion, and he was freeing the region from “imperialist” Israeli oppression. One of the first things he did after assuming power was abruptly to sever diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.
This past Monday, hundreds of thousands of Iranians poured into the country’s streets to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revolution. They chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”, while burning US and Israeli flags. A commander from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threatened to “raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground” in the event of an American attack on the country.
Quick to respond, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that this would be Iran’s last anniversary of the revolution if it attacked any Israeli cities.
This trading of barbs is nothing new. The question, of course, is whether either side is willing to make true on its threats.
Some experts say Iran is willing to risk its own destruction to fight Israel. Others believe Tehran would never go that far and would rather continue to pour money into its proxy armies.
These experts back up their arguments by pointing out that in spite of the recent humiliations Tehran has suffered in Syria from Israeli airstrikes, it has avoided any major confrontation with the Jewish state.
In its heyday, the relationship with Iran formed part of Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion’s, vision of cultivating relations with the non-Arab, mostly Muslim, enemies of its enemies.
Known as the “periphery doctrine”, chief among these Israeli partners were Turkey and pre-revolution Iran.
Nowadays Israel has a “reverse periphery doctrine”, forging alliances with major Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. The logic is the same – but in reverse. These countries share a common enemy in Iran.
But, it doesn’t alleviate the very real threat Tehran continues to pose. The country is developing longer range and more sophisticated missiles that can reach American and Israeli targets. It is building weapons factories in Syria in the hope of establishing a permanent military presence near Israel’s northern border. Like the revolution that heralded the current leadership four decades ago, Iran’s rulers are intent on sponsoring their proxies, and destroying Israel.
How kite flying turned into all-out warfare
It was less than three years ago that a wave of stabbings engulfed the streets of Israel – particularly Jerusalem and the West Bank – prompting many to refer to the flare-up in violence as a “knife intifada”. Now, it looks like a “kite intifada” is on the cards.
It is ironic that Israel has some of the world’s most sophisticated air defence systems, but it hasn’t been able to stop these kites – a relatively simple phenomenon of kites dangling burning cloth or embers – from being flown into Israel.
It’s reminiscent of when Palestinian militants first started using Qassam rockets in the early 2000s. The “homemade bottle rocket” took the Israeli army by surprise, especially as it was something that could be made in a kitchen.
The great Israel Defence Forces (IDF) struggled to contain the threat of what is effectively sugar, smuggled or scavenged TNT, along with potassium and urea nitrate – both widely available fertilizers.
It was only much later that it deployed the “Red Alert” early warning system, made up of advanced radar, which detected rockets as they were being launched. Since March 2011, the Iron Dome has entered the fray, intercepting rockets before they can hit their targets.
Now again, like in the early years of the Qassam rocket, Israeli military figures are scratching their heads over how to stop kite and balloon warfare. While the IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is against firing at the teenage flyers, many in the political echelon support it.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered the IDF to stop the firebombs – reportedly giving Friday as the deadline. This raises concerns that if it doesn’t happen, another Gaza war could be on the cards.
Kites have long been a big deal in Gaza. Seven years ago, Palestinian children set the world record for flying the most number of kites at one time. The ones they built had slogans on them calling for a lasting peace with Israel, in which Palestinian children could live in safety and security.
The message today is very different. The kite flyers have admitted to stumbling upon the idea. Wanting to provoke Israeli soldiers, they say they attached a burning rag to a one-dollar kite and were delighted when it fell on the other side of the border and started a fire.
This incendiary kite flying is relatively new to Gaza. However, over the past few months, thousands of kites and balloons – about 20 a day – have landed in Israel. They have been attached to firebombs and Molotov cocktails in order to inflict maximum damage.
According to the Israel’s foreign ministry, more than 400 fires were started on Israeli farmlands and nature reserves, destroying more than an estimated 7 000 acres of land and costing more than $2 million (R26 million) in damages. A huge number of wildlife have been killed and experts say it will take many years, if at all, for the ecosystem of plants, predators and prey to fully recover.
Not all the kites have caused fires and there haven’t been any fatalities on the Israeli side. Nevertheless, they’ve certainly put psychological stress on the communities living in southern Israel. They’ve in turn increasingly put pressure on the Israeli government to do something.
For the first time since the phenomenon started, Netanyahu visited the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Monday.
Until now he’s been more focused on the country’s northern border, where he’s trying to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military foothold in Syria.
Netanyahu is wary of escalating tensions on the Gaza border. However, last weekend more than 200 rockets and mortars were fired by Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Israel responded with its largest airstrike in the coastal strip since 2014. In a rare admission, Hamas said it had sent the rockets and mortars to deter Israel from more attacks.
Also known as Operation Protective Edge, that 2014 war started this month four years ago. Still, Israeli residents on the border find themselves living in as precarious a situation now as then.
At the time of writing, a ceasefire brokered by Egypt between the sides is holding, but tensions are high. The United Nations special envoy says an all-out war was narrowly averted. Jerusalem insists the kite flying must stop for the truce to sustain itself. However, Hamas earlier threatened that if the kite flyers are attacked, they’ll “go back to rockets”.
For this reason, the Israeli military urged the Cabinet “not to cross the line: not to try to kill the organisers, lest it trigger a general escalation on the border”.
And so Israel has drafted civilian drone enthusiasts as army reservists and instructed them to fly their remote-controlled aircraft into the kites. The army has also deployed a number of companies along the Gaza border to monitor the skies and quickly put out the fires.
The good news is that their effect is being felt. In recent weeks, there has been a steady decline in the size of the areas damaged by ensuing fires.
But just like with the Qassam rockets, a long-term effective means to stop the kites has yet to be found. As for the balloons, they are flown from deeper inside Gaza, often at a height of more than a kilometre, and are hard to spot with the naked eye before landing and starting a fire.
Then there’s the added problem of how the international community and media judge any Israeli response.
The recent six-week “Great March of Return”, in which more than 130 Palestinians were killed in protests along the border, is still seen by many in the global community as a “disproportionate” Israeli response to “unarmed” Palestinian protesters. That is despite all Israeli arguments to the contrary.
There will be little to no sympathy if the IDF now kills children flying kites and balloons because of some fires near the Gaza Strip. It will also be seen as immoral.
When Jerusalem finally gets a handle on the “kite intifada”, there will no doubt be something new in the pipeline that will terrorise the Israeli public. The cycle will continue for as long as the two million Gazans feel compelled to search for desperate measures to break the decade-long blockade imposed on them by Israel and Egypt. And, for as long as they search, Israelis will continue seeing their response as another form of Palestinian terrorism.
The repercussion of America bombarding Syria?
Last Saturday morning, the world woke up to news that America had bombed Syria. For a few hours, we were all reporting around-the-clock with the inevitable question: Would Russia respond?
In Israel, most Israelis were pleased that US President Donald Trump had made good on his threats and hit Syria. But there was concern whether in the long run this would benefit Jerusalem.
First and foremost, the Arab world will always find it difficult to cheer Western airstrikes on a fellow country – this includes even the worst enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He used the strikes to his advantage, and his supporters condemned the West and, in particular, the US and Israel.
The trigger, of course, was the alleged gas attack carried out a week earlier in the opposition-held town of Douma near Damascus, killing about 40 people. The images, particularly of injured children, catapulted the world to respond – more specifically, the Americans, British and French.
The good news for Trump was that he could be seen to organise a coalition in a few days, and he came across as a man who delivered on his threats. But what was his message?
US Defence Secretary James Mattis insisted that the objective of Saturday’s strike was to deter al-Assad and impair his regime from using chemical weapons in future. But, as the Russians have repeatedly said, there is still no conclusive proof that al-Assad was responsible – and what would have been his motivation in carrying out such an attack?
The Syrian army is winning the war – it is the rebels who are on the defensive. It doesn’t make sense for the Syrian president to incur the wrath of the West. If anything, the rebel groups have more to gain by carrying out a chemical attack, bringing the West into the war.
The last time Trump authorised two American naval destroyers to hit a Syrian airbase, he was just 11 weeks into his presidency. According to Western intelligence, since then al-Assad has allegedly launched dozens of chlorine-gas attacks that Trump has ignored. So, why did he respond this time?
The subtext suggests that al-Assad can behave any way he wants until Trump deems it inappropriate. And what about Trump’s desire not to get embroiled in Syria? How does launching airstrikes and refusing to be around to clean up their mess, benefit anyone?
You can’t get involved and not involved at the same time – which is exactly Trump’s wish. He wants to retaliate against al-Assad and also find a way to withdraw.
The vacuum created by the imploded Syrian state is perfect fodder for terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda to flourish, and the latest American-led airstrikes add to their recruitment propaganda.
The glaring double standards employed by the West are too difficult to ignore. Trump, together with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May, talk about defending human rights, but do nothing to stop such abuses in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The strike also does not significantly jeopardise the al-Assad regime’s survival. To do this, the American administration would need to provide aid to rebel groups, who are straining under Russian and Iranian pressure, and Trump has no desire to do this.
So, why did he do it? Consensus is that it was a challenge to Russia and a show of strength. The Kremlin views the strikes as an insult, especially as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin earlier urged Trump to avoid punitive measures.
Mattis stressed this was a “one-time shot” – was this to appease the Russians? And in appeasing the Russians, who are annoyed anyway, has Trump shown himself to be weak?
Some say Putin is embarrassed. He asked the Americans to do nothing and was ignored.
But many argue the opposite; that Trump’s actions showed him up to be weak. The Americans reportedly warned the Russians they would strike, and the Russians, in turn, told the Syrians, who left the base. No Russian targets and territory were attacked.
Trump can claim that the sites struck were centres of Syria’s chemical weapons programme, but it is far from clear if they were still central to the al-Assad regime’s chemical programme – and it is possible that activity there had already been halted.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said as much. He remarked that the strikes failed to accomplish their goals and were not made to be more expansive because the US, UK and France feared that a response from the Syrian regime and its backers could trigger a wider conflagration.
What does all this mean for Israel?
Some Israeli analysts suggest that Trump showed too much consideration for the Russians. By insisting on a precise strike and nothing more, he sent the message that Washington doesn’t really want to deal with Syria and Russia, which in turn shows Israel that she is alone.
Trump might say all the right stuff right now, but any future course of action will be based solely on American interests and concerns – and these include not getting embroiled in another war – rather than on coming to Israel’s defence if she needs it.
There are also concerns in Jerusalem that Russia won’t retaliate militarily to last weekend’s strikes, but instead, will look to punish America by harming her ally, Israel. The worry is that part of the Russian response, when it comes, will be to limit Jerusalem’s use of Syrian airspace (which the Russians control) to attack Iranian targets.
This is Israel’s main concern in Syria – Tehran’s growing military influence on the ground. The US-led strikes don’t alleviate these concerns.
For now, Tehran has condemned the attacks as “criminal” and “violating Syria’s sovereignty in… international law”, but has not said much more. No doubt it has held its response in check because next month Trump will decide on the future of the P5+ 1 nuclear deal between Tehran and the West, and the Iranians don’t want to jeopardise it.
It’s worth nothing, though, that after the strikes Putin spoke via telephone with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, after which the Kremlin said: “The leaders… agreed that this illegal action is adversely impacting prospects for political settlement in Syria… [and] chaos in international relations.”
It seems unlikely that America and Russia will go to war over Syria. But this chapter is far from over. Israel has every reason to be concerned.
- Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of Newshound Media and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.
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