A reinforced deployment of tanks and heavy guns is parked along Israel’s frontier with Syria as the civil war that transformed the balance of power in the Middle East appears headed into its final stretch. The fighting in Syria has come full circle as its army sets its sights on retaking Daraa province, where the regime’s brutal reaction to anti-government graffiti on a school wall sparked the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011.
The offensive against one of the last two major opposition strongholds has brought Syrian forces close to the Israeli-held section of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.
As the thud of shells echoes across what has dependably been Israel’s quietest frontier for decades, fears of new conflicts have risen.
Iran, whose forces helped to propel Assad to the brink of total victory, has a presence on the doorstep of archenemy Israel. With the U.S. on the sidelines, only Russia has the clout to prevent the Israeli military from being drawn deeper into what remains of Syria’s war.
“None of us here is foolish enough to believe things will just go back to the way they were,” said Qasem Sabagh, a member of the Golan Druze community that came under Israeli control, as he looked out at a United Nations post where Syrian relatives once came to shout greetings through a loudspeaker. “The entire world wants a piece of Syria — Iran, the U.S., Israel, Russia.”
Turning the Tide
It was Russia’s military intervention in Syria in September 2015 that turned the course of the war in Assad’s favour. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fly to Russia on Wednesday for the eighth time since it entered the conflict. He’s said he’ll press for Iran’s ejection from Syria and demand that Syria “strictly” uphold the 1974 disengagement accord that set out a buffer zone.
Both objectives are complicated, and if they’re not achieved, the Middle East could see the first head-to-head war between regional powers since Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Israel has acted twice in Syria in the past few days. Over the weekend, the offensive spilt into the buffer zone after a mortar shell from Syria exploded in the Israeli-controlled Golan, provoking Israeli artillery fire. On Monday, the U.K.-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Israel most likely conducted an overnight attack on the T-4 airbase used by Syria and Iran’s Quds Force.
“Any Syrian soldier who enters the buffer zone endangers his life,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Tuesday. “We are not prepared to accept any Iranian presence in Syria.”
Israel has already carried out numerous strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and arms convoys bound for the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad’s forces. Yet after backing Assad for seven years, Iran and its allies won’t easily give up the military infrastructure they have built close to Israel, including militias, bases and a drone operation, according to the Israelis.
Iran’s presence in Syria “is part of their regional influence,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, diplomatic editor for the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. “They can use the border as leverage against the West and Israel.”
Iran’s postwar role in Syria will be at the top of the list when President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Helsinki on July 16, a senior Russian official said. Putin has agreed in principle to U.S. and Israeli demands to replace pro-Iranian forces in southern Syria with troops loyal to Assad, two Kremlin advisers said.
But Russia’s ability to enforce the emerging agreement with Trump is questionable.
There will be limits to how far Putin will press Iran, and his strategy is to find a middle ground between the conflicting interests of major players, said Andrei Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group that advises the Kremlin.
The Russian leader may agree to keep letting Israel bomb Iranian convoys transporting advanced weapons to Hezbollah while allowing Iran to maintain a route for arms supplies to Hezbollah that would stretch from Iran through Syria to Lebanon, he said.
Iran, some analysts said, is playing a long game. It’s sitting out the campaign in southern Syria, deeming it less risky to let Assad’s troops win back territory near the Israeli-held section of the Golan, said Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at Stratford, a Texas-based advisory firm.
“This is the Iranians themselves accepting that for the sake of the success of the offensive, it’s better they sit it out,” Lamrani said.
Then, at a time of their choosing, they can try to penetrate the border area, said Ehud Yaari, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In the course of the war, the Syrian section of the Golan has been the scene of battles between government forces and an array of opposition groups including rebels, Islamist forces and militants affiliated with al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Israel sought to carve out a buffer zone populated by friendly forces by secretly supplying Syrian opposition fighters with aid, medical treatment in Israel and, according to the Wall Street Journal, cash payments for weapons and fighters’ salaries. It’s also providing humanitarian aid to the thousands of Syrians camped out in tents near Israel’s frontier, hoping to find sanctuary from the government onslaught.
“We were brainwashed for decades to hate Israel,” said Hani, a resident of southern Syria being treated for shrapnel wounds at Israel’s Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya. “I now see that my enemy isn’t Israel, but the people who came and destroyed our village.” He declined to give his full name for fear of reprisal.
Shared enmity of Shiite Iran has allowed Israel to create quiet ties with Sunni-led Gulf Arab states that once shunned it. By that same token, Israel’s support for the Sunnis in Syria against the government and Iran-backed forces wasn’t a failed investment, said Sami Nader, head of the Levant Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut.
“They don’t hate Israel anymore or see it as a threat,” Nader said. “Israel is not seen as the worst enemy.”