Russia, Israel and Iran braced for the endgame in Syria
Russia may soon find it impossible to pursue a policy in Syria that accommodates Israel as well as its enemies.
There are many indications that the war in Syria is entering a new and less vicious phase in the uneasy reconstitution of a “New Syria”.
Around al-Quneitra, only 60km southeast of Damascus, however, and particularly along the nearby Golan frontier, contesting parties are escalating efforts to control the agenda on the ground and at the negotiating table.
It is no accident that the region bordering the Israeli-occupied plateau from Shebaa to the Yarmouk has been one of the quietest and less destructive fronts of the war.
Israel’s commanding presence in an area that is peripheral to the interests of the war’s major antagonists has muted the war.
The regime, with its regional allies and Russia on one side, and an opposition of all stripes on the other, have each been more interested in fighting each other than the Israelis.
The ceasefire border established in 1974 between Israel and Syria, even without the presence of United Nations observers on the “Bravo” [Syrian] side, remains the most sacrosanct of all Syria’s bloody frontiers.
Synchronising with Russia
Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s one day visit to Moscow on March 9 was the latest round in the ongoing coordination established in September 2015.
The summit was conducted in a very positive atmosphere. Russia’s official news agency Tass gushed: “Israeli prime minister hails Russia’s role in fight against Islamic terrorism.”
Netanyahu attaches great importance to reaffirming the basis for “synchronisation” with Vladimir Putin, both operationally and diplomatically, as the conflict enters the beginning of the war’s end.
Unlike the Obama administration, Netanyahu never believed that Russia’s entry into the war was “doomed to fail“.
Within days of the September 2015 announcement, Netanyahu was in Moscow. He was eager to coordinate, both operationally in the skies above Syria where the Israeli air force has enjoyed all but absolute freedom of action, and diplomatically to maintain Russian support for explicit “rules of the game” that serve to accommodate Israeli interests and deter efforts by any party – notably Hezbollah, Iran or the enfeebled regime itself – to successfully challenge them.
On the eve of his fourth visit to the Kremlin in two and one half years. Netanyahu declared Israel’s agenda as the endgame in Syria unfolds.
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“One of the most important issues we will discuss is Iran’s attempt to make an agreement with Syria. With or without Syria’s agreement, Iran will attempt to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, both on land and at sea.
“In fact, Iran is attempting to slowly open a front with Israel in the Golan Heights.
“I will tell President Putin about my extreme opposition to this plan, and about the possibility Israel will choose to attack. I hope we will be able to come to the understandings necessary to prevent as much as possible confrontations between Russian and Israeli forces – just as we have been able to do until now.”
Moscow is not the only address for Netanyahu’s effort to take the Golan out of play. In earlier discussions in Washington, Netanyahu asked US President Donald Trump to recognise Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights.
And, as if on cue, one day before Netanyahu’s visit, Washington’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley explained US concerns as the negotiating track intensifies.
“This is very much about a political solution now … and that basically means that Syria can no longer be a safe haven for terrorists. We’ve got to make sure we get Iran and their proxies out. We’ve got to make sure that, as we move forward, we’re securing the borders for our allies as well.”
Netanyahu's efforts to win unambiguous Russian guarantees to limit Iran and its proxies are bound to be disappointed.
Israel has no interest in paying the price for any diplomatic outcome to the war, particularly one that acknowledges an Iranian or Hezbollah role anywhere in Syria, let alone along the disputed Golan frontier.
As the endgame unfolds, Netanyahu expects the Russians to continue to keep Israel’s enemies on a short leash.
Russian-Israel opposition to destabilising the southern front has proved itself. But it is also the case that Hezbollah and the Iranians get a vote in determining the shape of postwar Syria.
The Golan frontier
The Golan frontier has always loomed large in their considerations.
Israel, however, has effectively pre-empted a number of attempts in recent years to create a military infrastructure in the region.
Hezbollah considers all of Israel to be within its range, with or without a Golan front in Syria.
Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah has warned that the nuclear power facility at Dimona and chemical installation in Haifa are within reach of his arsenal.
Nonetheless, Hezbollah sees particular value in extending the “resistance front” east of Shebaa to the Jordanian border – both as a deterrent and as a platform for confronting Israel in the next war.
Iran, too, has a demonstrated interest in, at the very least, testing Israel’s opposition to the deployment of hostile forces allied to Teheran along the border.
Within days of the Netanyahu-Moscow summit, Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shia paramilitary with operational links with Hezbollah and Iran, announced the formation of its “Golan Liberation Brigade“.
The group was one of the first Iraqi paramilitaries to send fighters in 2013 to Syria at Iran’s direction. They have been deployed principally in the Aleppo region.
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The announcement is yet another signal that Iran and its allies are increasingly focused on confronting the opposition in the south, but only as the first of a two-stage effort to expand the “line of confrontation” with Israel east from Shebaa to the Yarmouk river.
Damascus lacks the power to prevent this. Iran, for its part, has yet to test the limits of Russia’s opposition, or to commit itself to such a policy.
A balancing act
Russia has forged strong operational ties with Hezbollah and Iran but this does not extend to its endorsement of a militant regional strategy against Israel, in the Golan or elsewhere.
Neither Moscow, nor Damascus for that matter, is interested in empowering its wartime allies to create a military infrastructure on the Golan with the capacity to independently engage Syria, or Russia, in a war against Israel.
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Nevertheless Netanyahu’s efforts to win unambiguous Russian guarantees to limit Iran and its proxies are bound to be disappointed.
As the Syrian war winds down, Russia is increasingly expanding its role as an arbiter among and between enemies and erstwhile allies, a role that offers a compelling rationale for its continuing influence in Syria.
Playing this role will exact a price, however. If until now Putin has been able to contain the contradictions of a policy that accommodates Israel as well as its enemies, in the next phase of the battle this balancing act may not be so easy.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.