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According to Yoni Ariel, Israel must reserve itself a seat at the table around which an agreement that ends the Syrian civil war will be reached. If we do not, Ariel claims, we could find ourselves facing Iranian forces in the Golan Heights.
Chaos in Syria Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News
Russia has, over the past year, achieved all of its aims in the Middle East. Its military intervention in Syria changed the momentum of the civil war, enabling Assad to reestablish control over most of the country, reestablishing it as a major player in the region.
Having achieved these goals, Russia is now willing to convene a peace conference it will control together with Turkey and Iran, two of the three other major regional powers.
The one regional power that has so far not ensured its place at the table is Israel. Despite the fact that it has clear interests to defend in Syria and that it is the region’s most militarily powerful player, so far it has refrained from staking its claim.
This must change and the sooner the better. The ad-hoc Russian-Iranian-Turkish alliance is inherently unstable. Tehran and Turkey have different, mutually incompatible interests and agendas.
Turkey wants to see Syria dismembered. Erdogan understands that Russia will insist Assad or another Alawite retain control of northwest Syria, the Alawite heartland. This area includes the Russian bases at Tartus and Latakia. For this reason, Russia will insist the Alawites, its traditional allies, remain in control of that area, ensuring their bases are not jeopardized. Erdogan, despite his desire to make Assad pay for his wholesale massacre and ethnic cleansing of Syria’s Sunni majority (Turkey is a Sunni country), understands realpolitik and is willing to let Assad remain the leader of what is already being referred to as Alawistan.
He is not willing, however, to allow Assad to retain control over all of Syria. There is too much bad blood between the Sunni majority and the Alawites to allow this. Any Sunni leader who agrees to keep Syria’s Sunnis under the Alawite heel would be seen throughout the Sunni world as a turncoat and coward. Turkey is the most powerful Sunni country in the region, with aspirations to once again become the defender of the Sunni world, as it was during the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan, who see himself the leader of the Sunni world, cannot allow such a scenario to take place. It is vital for him that all or at least most of the Sunni heartland (an area that includes Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama and the Syrian Golan Heights) does not remain under the rule of the Alawite minority regime.
In addition, Turkey also wants to prevent the emergence of a de facto independent Syrian Kurdish zone. Erdogan has already begun a crackdown on Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, resulting in a renewed Kurdish insurrection. At the very least, he wants to ensure any Kurdish autonomous zone does not include the Kurdish areas west of the Euphrates.
Iran has a very different agenda. The whole purpose of its costly intervention in the Syrian civil war has been to ensure the Alawite-Shiite (the Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam) regime retains control of the whole of Syria, especially the Aleppo-Damascus-Dera’a corridor. Iran needs this are under Alawite control to ensure it has to the supply routes it needs to keep Hezbollah supplied with arms and cash. In addition, this means Iran could send its ground forces to the Syrian-Israeli border, threatening Israel with a two-front war, against Hezbollah from Lebanon and against Iranian forces stationed in the Syrian Golan Heights. Israel could not tolerate this scenario. If Iran succeeds in getting its way, a war will become inevitable.
Russia’s prime interest is to ensure either Assad or one of his henchmen retain control of northwestern Syria, where Russia’s naval and airbases at Tartus and Latakia are located. Since the Alawites are its only dependable allies in the region all of Syria, this means this area must, as far as Russia is concerned, remain under Alawite control. This means partitioning Syria and creating “Alawistan,” in northwestern Syria, where most of the Alawite minority (was 15% of the country before the civil war, ethnic cleansing of Sunnis has made turned them into 30% of the population) is concentrated and where Russia’s bases are.
Putin does not consider Assad regaining control over all of Syria to be one of his major interests. Russia needs to balance between Turkey and Iran. Allowing all of Syria, the birthplace of the first Sunni Caliphate (Omayyad) to become part of the Shiite axis, especially after Assad has killed over half a million Sunnis and turned 5 million of them into refugees, would alienate Russia from Turkey and the entire Sunni world. Moreover, Russia has zero interest in empowering Iran by allowing it to implement its agenda. There is no love lost between Russia and Iran (Persia). They fought a series of wars during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The last one, in the 19th century (1804-1828), was a major Russian victory, in which it seized Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Dagestan and other parts of the northern Caucuses from Persia. The last thing Russia needs is to have an empowered, vengeful radical Islamist Iran on its southern border.
Assad Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News
These conflicting agendas mean at some not too distant point, Russia will then have to decide which partner to dump. Both Russia and Israel have an interest in seeing Iran contained. For Russia, however, this as at most an important interest but for Israel, it is a vital one.
In order not to have to depend on Uncle Vladimir to have its back, Israel needs to get into the game, to ensure it will be at the table where the deals are done, the only way of ensuring its back is not the one that ends up getting stabbed.
Two groups in the Syrian puzzle would be glad to see Israel officially declare itself their protector, giving it a legitimate basis to get itself invited to the party. One is the Kurds. Israel already has excellent relations with the KAR (Kurdish Autonomous Region), the de facto state of Iraqi Kurdistan. Israel can easily get them to ask it to declare Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria east of the Euphrates as Israeli guaranteed no-fly zones. This would not risk bringing the IAF into conflict with Russian aircraft operating in Syria, as they do not conduct major operations in those areas. Moreover, this would indicate tacit Kurdish willingness to accept Turkey’s demand that any expansion of the KAR into Syria stops at the Euphrates. The fact that Israel, which has an interest in maintaining its relations with Turkey on an even keel, would be involved makes it more likely Turkey might agree to such an understanding.
The other group is the Druze. A small (5%) minority, they mostly live in the Jabal Druze (Druze Mountain) an area in southwestern Syria, between the Golan Heights and Dera’a near the Jordanian border. Israel’s Druze minority, many of whom have relatives in Syria, have been pressuring Israel to declare Syria’s Druze under its protection for some time. When ISIS and other Jihadist forces threatened some Druze villages, Israel, at the request of the Druze leadership, sent a discreet but clear message that any move against the Druze could get the IDF involved. They backed down.
Hezbollah Photo Credit: Reuters/Channel 2 News
For Israel, such a policy is not risk-free. In the Middle East, however, the line between overly cautious and timid is very thin and once you are perceived as timid, you are fair game and no one will have your back. Middle Eastern diplomacy is a contact sport in which only the participants get to play. Spectators are not taken seriously, their concerns are at best ignored, at worst trampled over.
Participating in a rough contact sport has its risks, but these are far outweighed by the risk of not being at the table and finding ourselves in a situation in which our interest have been ignored and end up facing Iranian forces and their proxies ranged against us in both Lebanon and Syria. This would be a worst possible outcome for Israel, which we must avoid at all costs, including the costs we might incur by intervening.