Strategy and Israel’s Stake in Eastern Syria
June 24, 2017
downing on June 18th of a Syrian Air Force SU-22 by a UA Navy F-18 Super Hornet
over the skies of northern Syria sharply raises the stakes in the emergent
stand-off in the country. This stand-off is no longer between local militias,
nor between regional powers. Rather, through interlocking lines of support, it
places the United States in direct opposition to Russia.
last move has almost certainly not yet been made. And while events in north east
Syria may seem a distance away, there is a direct Israeli interest in the
outcome of the current contest.
latest move was a probably inevitable outcome of two sharply opposing outlooks
currently in play in Syria. The US seeks to maintain a divide between the war
against Islamic State in the east of the country and the civil war between Assad
and the rebellion against him in the west of it. In the east, US-supported
Kurdish and Sunni Arab rebel forces are forbidden from attacking Assad's forces.
US statement following the downing of the SU-22 reflected this position.
Pentagon Spokesman Cpt. Jeff Davis noted that the US does 'not seek conflict
with any party in Syria other than ISIS, but we will not hesitate to defend
ourselves or our partners if threatened.'
the point of view of the regime and its Russia and Iranian allies, by contrast,
no such division exists. For them, the Syrian war is a single system, in which
the 'legitimate government' (ie the Assad regime) is engaged in a fight against
various illegitimate entities. The latter group includes ISIS, but also the
Sunni Arab rebels and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, with whom
the US is aligned.
The defeat of the Islamic State as an entity controlling
territory is now only a matter of time.
recent Astana agreement for the creation of four 'de-escalation' areas has freed
up regime and allied forces to take a more active role in the war against ISIS
further east. Regime forces are advancing along two axes – from Palmyra in the
south, and from Aleppo province further north. The second axis is bringing the
regime and its allies into direct and close proximity with the US-supported SDF.
The incident this week took place, according to the US version, after regime
forces attacked the SDF in the town of Jadin south of Tabqa. Further tactical
clashes are probably inevitable as each side seeks to take control of areas
abandoned by ISIS as it retreats.
these tactical matters are part of an emergent strategic reality. The defeat of
the Islamic State as an entity controlling territory is clearly only a matter of
time. The actions of the Assad regime (or more accurately the Iranian and
Russian interests that dominate it) equally clearly reflect their determination
to confront and defeat all other armed elements within Syria. The United States
is currently backing certain non-governmental armed elements in Syria, for the
stated purpose of defeating Islamic State.
the situation is leading the US inexorably toward a choice. At a certain point,
perhaps after the final eclipse of IS, but also perhaps before it, Washington
will need to decide if it wishes to abandon its allies to destruction at the
hands of the regime, Iran and Russia, or whether it wishes to help to defend the
forces it has armed and trained.
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters are leading the
assault on Raqqa.
this point, the US will need to decide its end objective in Syria. Is it a
federalized, decentralized Syria, with the regime dominant in the west and US
allies in the east? Is it the destruction of the Assad regime? The construction
of safe zones and ongoing negotiation? Which is it to be?
of this is easy and all choices have a price. Failure to decide, and a tactical,
localized response to immediate threats is also a kind of choice, of course. So
far, this type of response has resulted in the pro-Iranian forces reaching the
Iraqi border, north of al-Tanf, and cutting off the US-backed rebels in the area
from the possibility of further progress northwards.
of now, on four occasions, US forces have responded to the regime coming too
close. But this has the appearance of a piecemeal response. All sides await the
discovery or emergence of US strategy in Syria.
If the US
and its allies are eclipsed in eastern Syria, Iran will enjoy a contiguous
land bridge to Israel's borders.
does all this matter for Israel? For the following reason: if the US and its
allies are eclipsed in eastern Syria, the result will be the establishment of a
contiguous land link from Iran, across Iraq and Syria and to Lebanon and the
Israeli border. This in turn will transform the threat picture facing Israel in
the event of a renewed war with Hizballah. This is not only or mainly to do with
the transfer of weapons systems to the Lebanese Shia jihadis.
must observe and study the style of war that Iran has conducted in Syria and
Iraq over the last half decade to grasp this essential point. In both contexts,
with no official Iranian declaration of war, a coalition of Teheran-aligned
militias have acted in a coordinated fashion on behalf of Iranian allies and
interests. This coalition of forces has played a crucial role in the survival of
the Assad regime. In Iraq, a similar coalition of Iran-aligned forces played a
crucial role in the fight against IS, and now constitutes the key instrument of
power in that country.
no time have the pro-Iranian forces been constricted by nominal state borders or
'national' divisions. Lebanese Hizballah personnel have played a vital role in
Syria and have been present also in Iraq. Iraqi militiamen have been active in
Syria. Afghan fighters were among the first to reach the Syria-Iraq border on
Pro-Iranian forces aren't constricted by nominal borders or
is no reason for Israeli planners to assume that a future war with Hizballah
would be immune from this pattern. To reiterate, it does not require a formal
declaration of war from Iran. Proxies are mobilized and deployed under the
stewardship of the IRGC, but with no direct or acknowledged involvement given or
demanded from Iran at any stage.
loosely and ambiguously governed nature of these territories would serve as an
advantage for the Iranian forces, perhaps providing the kind of diplomatic cover
for them that the presence of the toothless Siniora government in Beirut did in
2006. Thus the tried and tested Iranian model of revolutionary warfare.
creation of a contiguous corridor all the way from Iran to Lebanon would make
possible the prosecution of such a war at an appropriate time and opportunity
for Teheran, against Israel.
this reason, the prevention of the emergence of this direct land route through
eastern Syria is a direct Israeli national interest. Unfortunately, the tactical
and piecemeal nature of the US response, and the apparent absence of a clearly
formulated strategy to face the Iranian, Russian-supported advance may yet
facilitate its creation. Perhaps a clear strategy will yet emerge. It is Trump's