Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently issued a series of threats to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad regarding Iran’s growing influence.
The Times of Israel reported that Netanyahu told Assad that they would “intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war” if Assad allows Iran to establish a military presence in the region. Up until now, Israel has not become heavily involved in the civil war, but since the Islamic State (ISIS) has lost most of its territory, Tehran appears to be seeking opportunities to expand its influence in Syria.
If Netanyahu is to be believed, Israel has no intention of letting that happen.
Israel’s Message to Assad and Iran
As ISIS’ power in Syria diminishes, Iran is attempting to gain a greater sphere of influence in the region. They have propped up the Assad regime by providing training and equipment to his loyal forces. Hezbollah has sent a significant number of its troops to aid Assad’s military efforts against the rebels. If Syria consents, Iran will establish a military presence in the country, which shares a border with Israel.
Israel has refrained from becoming involved in the Syrian conflict so far and has only used force when threatened. They have provided medical support for anti-Assad forces. However, The Times of Israel indicates that the transcript of a phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and French President Emmanuel Macron reveals that Netanyahu is willing to use the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) to protect national security.
“From now on, Israel sees Iran’s activities in Syria as a target,” Netanyahu told Macron. “We will not hesitate to act, if our security needs require us to do so.” The Israeli prime minister also stated that their objective “must be to minimize Iran’s influence, not only in Lebanon but also in Syria.” He pointed out that pro-Iranian forces have seized more control in the region after ISIS’ defeat.
Later, the Prime Minister issued another warning — this time directly to President Assad. Using a third party, Netanyahu told the Syrian president that Israel would intervene if he “invites Iranian forces to establish themselves in Syria via an agreement of any kind.”
Tehran’s Ambitions in Syria
Israel’s concerns about Iran’s objectives in Syria are not unfounded. Syria already struck a deal with Russia, allowing them to remain in the region in exchange for military assistance. The notion that Assad might enter into a similar agreement with Iran is not farfetched.
A western intelligence source told the BBC that Iran has “established a compound at a site used by the Syrian army outside El-Kiswah, 14 km (8 miles) south of Damascus.” Satellite images revealed the construction activity, which took place between January and October of this year. The compound is likely intended to house soldiers and vehicles.
The Jerusalem Post reported that during his surprise visit to Russia last week, President Assad told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Syria would agree to establish a demilitarized zone of up to 40 kilometers from the border of the Golan Heights if Israel promises not to assist efforts to overthrow Assad’s regime. Putin passed the message along to Netanyahu, who stated that he was willing to accept the deal, but they would not abandon their efforts to remove Iran and Hezbollah from the region.
The Aftermath of The Battle Against ISIS
Now that the Islamic State (ISIS) has been all but destroyed in Syria, a new set of problems has presented itself. Up until this point, Russia, the United States, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad have been concerned with pushing ISIS out of the region. It was the one point upon which each entity could unite.
Israel is right to be concerned about Iran’s expansion into Syria. ISIS’ defeat has created a vacuum in the region — one which Tehran is anxious to fill. Hezbollah is a more lethal threat than they were ten years ago. The group that fought the IDF to a standstill in 2006 has become a stronger fighting force with over 20,000 troops and a presence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Latin America.
Avoiding conflict will only be possible if Iran does not attempt to establish bases in Syria. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made his stance on the matter clear: Israel is willing to use military force to prevent Iran from building a stronger presence in the country. There is no indication that the Israeli leader is bluffing.
If the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran escalates into a military altercation, the United States and Russia will be at cross purposes again. Russia maintains a strong alliance with Tehran, and now that President Obama is no longer in office, Israel has a committed ally in the United States.
Ousting ISIS was a tremendous feat, but now, the situation in Syria will become far more complicated. President Trump and Vladimir Putin have been negotiating the next steps in Syria after ISIS is gone, but tensions between Israel and Iran might put a damper on any deal between Washington and Moscow. Hopefully, Putin will persuade Iran to back off its goals for Syria.