A dozen Iranian soldiers are reportedly dead, an Iranian arms depot is said to be destroyed, and fingers are being pointed at Israel. This finger-pointing, it would seem, is exactly the point.
The death of 12 men and destruction of a new arms depot is a setback for the Iranian regime, which is working hard to establish a long “corridor” of land under its control or the control of forces that it considers loyal.
But it’s not just about eliminating an Iranian installation. If the strike is the work of Israel — a suggestion that Jerusalem won’t confirm or deny — then it sends an important message at a key moment.
The strike took place on Saturday, just south of Damascus, and on Monday there were unconfirmed reports that missiles were fired at a Syrian military facility, also near Damascus. Again, Israel was widely said to be behind the attack.
Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, got a lot of attention this week for suggesting that war could be close with the Iranian proxy Hezbollah. “If Iran is not rolled back in Syria, then the chances of military confrontation are growing,” he said in an interview. “I don’t want to tell you by the year or by the month. I’d say even by the week.”
Netanyahu: “My friends, one day the Iranian regime will fall. Iranian mothers and fathers will rejoice in the street. Israel will be first in line to restore relations and rebuild our great partnership.”
With words and, if international reports are correct, with firepower, Israel and Iran are already in a war of sorts. “My friends, one day the Iranian regime will fall,” Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a message to the Saban Forum on Sunday. “Iranian mothers and fathers will rejoice in the street. Israel will be first in line to restore relations and rebuild our great partnership.”
Until then, Netanyahu said, take the Iranian regime at its word, and apply the message when deciding what to do in Syria. “When tyrants call for the destruction my people, I believe them. I don’t have the luxury of discounting their genocidal threats,” the Israeli PM said, before reiterating Israel’s policy on Iranian presence in Syria.
He emphasized: “We will not allow a regime hell-bent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to acquire nuclear weapons. We will not allow that regime to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as is seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”
Netanyahu’s other key point to the Saban Forum was that his audience should do all it can to seize the opportunity that U.S. President Donald Trump has opened up to fix the great flaws” in the West’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Netanyahu’s message was a strong one, but if Israel was behind the strike on the Iranian facility, the message is multiplied many times over.
Whatever opportunities Trump may have opened up for altering the West’s nuclear deal with Iran, and whatever plans he is formulating to recognize at least part of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, when you stand in the Golan Heights it’s hard not to conclude that he has sold Israel down the river regarding the Syria border.
Recent ceasefire arrangements that Trump’s team made with the Russians supposedly cleared Iranians and jihadist forces away from Israel’s doorstep, but the reality was very different. It left the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps within about 3 to 6 miles of the border. The Syrian Civil War has turned Iran not only in to a next-door neighbor, but the type of neighbor that is peering over the garden gate. And in his desire to reach ceasefire consensus with the Russians, Trump has tacitly this close proximity.
Trump is a man who believes in leverage. It has been observed that if the president is about to declare part of Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital but decline to move the U.S. embassy there, it gives him a whole new degree of leverage over both the Israelis and the Palestinians. For Netanyahu would have a hard time resisting peace moves demanded by a president who is friendly enough to change policy on Jerusalem. And Trump could threaten the Palestinians that if they don’t cooperate with his peace plans, he’ll move the embassy and recognize all — not some — of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Netanyahu has leverage, too. Trump may have Netanyahu over a barrel on the Palestinian issue, with the Israeli PM destined over the coming months to take part in whatever peace process the U.S. president has planned. But when it comes to Syria, Netanyahu has the ability to take actions that can shake delicate ceasefire arrangements that Trump and President Putin of Russia agree on.
Netanyahu has an interest in reminding Trump that Israel has red lines, and that when these are being breached, Israel is prepared to act. Israel is defiantly telling Trump that America and Russia can’t decide the future of Syria without properly taking Israeli concerns in to account.
Whether through words or firepower there are also messages being communicated, on this issue of Iranian presence in Syria, to Saudi Arabia and Russia. Everything that Israel is doing at the moment on Iran can be seen doubling up as part of the country’s flirtation with Saudi Arabia — exhibiting Jerusalem’s relevance and power on the Iranian issue to Tehran’s mutual enemy in Riyadh. As Saudi Arabia increasingly thinks of Israel as an ally against Iran, Israel wants to emphasize its assets.
When it comes to Russia, Israel is answering back. Moscow is ensuring an easy ride for Iran in negotiations for Syrian ceasefires, and its power is allowing Iranian influence to remain strong. If Israel struck the Iranian target, it seems to have been pushing the boundaries and establishing a precedent that it will act against the growth of Iranian infrastructure in Syria. It’s easy to see why Israel could consider this precedent important, as players are starting to look at end-game scenarios for the Syrian Civil War.
Israel has an uphill struggle. Russia isn’t only failing to see urgency in weeding out Iranian influence from Syria, but actually sees it as deserving a seat at the table for shaping the post-civil war reality. Iran just took part at trilateral meeting between Iran, Russia and Turkey in the Russian resort of Sochi to discuss this subject.
At the end of the summit, Levan Dzhagaryan, Moscow’s ambassador to Tehran, gave an interview to the Tehran Times, and said that while Iran is criticized for supporting terrorism, through its involvement in Syria it “proved that it is against terrorism and is very active in fighting the phenomenon.”
The ambassador even said the summit had been likened to the Yalta Conference, held in 1945 by the U.S., U.K. and Soviet Union to discuss what Europe should look like post-war. “The meeting was very important and some compared it to Yalta,” he said. “The heads of the three countries took very important decisions to end the war and settle the crisis in Syria politically. We are entering the political phase to settle the Syrian crisis.”
In this “political phase” Israel, locked out of Sochi discussions as Tehran enjoyed its seat at the table, and with some if its concerns ignored at the White House, needs all methods it its disposal to protect its interests.
Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.