A Syrian Cordon Sanitaire: Is Israel huffing & puffing, or is it serious ?

Alastair Crooke, Comment, 21 July 2017

Israel has backtracked on the Amman ‘ceasefire’ agreement negotiated by the US, Russia and Jordan. The latter established the outline for a de-escalation zone in south-west Syria. From the outset, this accord was all about Israel, and its Jordanian junior partner.  Initially, Israel said ‘yes’, (and participated in some of the discussions), but earlier this week the Israeli PM had a change of mind. Israel now says that the ceasefire (which has been holding up well) is a very bad deal for Israel – and that none of its security demands were met. Ben Caspit, a senior Israeli commentator, quotes a source familiar with the matter: “This is not just some disagreement. This is a real clash, pitting Israel against Russia and the United States. It reflects Israel’s conspicuous disappointment with the way that the Americans let Putin outmaneuver them, leading to the sellout of Israeli interests in the Golan Heights and Lebanon versus the Shiite axis.” 

The reverse is true: in fact the Amman negotiators’ intent from the outset had been to halt the Syrian army and its partner forces – on a roll, taking back swathes of its sovereign territory, as insurgent forces melted away – from getting too close to the Golan armistice line.  American negotiators at the talks were plain enough: the US had only two objectives in the talks – to protect Israel, and to defeat ISIS.  And these aims were fully reflected in the provisional agreement that froze the conflict, and imposed a “no foreign fighters” cordon of 20 kms on the Syrian side of the Golan armistice line and the Syrian-Jordanian border (that would exclude Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi militia) for a defined period of time. Furthermore, this entire zone would be monitored and enforced by Russian police forces.

On the face of it, the US negotiators did the job that they had set out to do. So, why is Israel backtracking, and escalating – post hoc – its demands ?  It now says that it will not tolerate a permament Iranian or Hizbullah presence in Syria – at all. The former head of the Israeli NSC has said explicity that Israel may use military force to halt any bases being established. 

Plainly, Netanyahu is disappointed and angry. His hopes for a Saudi-led, “Sunni” coalition that would confront, contain and roll-back Iranian influence – have imploded with the mess that constitutes the present intra-GCC fratricide. Equally, his hopes for a logistics corridor and buffer – running along the north of the Syrian-Iraqi border and extending to the Euphrates river – collapsed when the Iraqi government, angered by President Trump’s launch of an explicit anti-Shi’a alliance in Riyadh (when he bundled PMU militia and Hizbullah as principal actors in the terrorist problem), tipped the balance.  The Iraqi government gave the PMU the green light to open the Iraqi-Syrian border from both sides.

I would guess that Netanyahu scents that Israel’s part in the Syrian conflict is inching towards an endgame – and that the future no longer portends a weak Syria, riven with Israeli-friendly jihadi forces, balkanising the territory, as expected. But rather, a Syria fully connected with Hizballah, Iran, and now, with an increasingly pro-active, if inchoate, Iraqi PMU constellation.

Is Israel, in its frustration, then thinking to impose its own buffer zone, as it did in southern Lebanon?  At a guess, probably ‘no’. The lesson of southern Lebanon is still too raw to contemplate a ‘physical’ buffer zone. An Israeli troop presence in southern Syria would be an open invitation to guerrilla action, in order to repulse the invaders.  The threats from the Israeli PM, more likely, are an attempt to change the Syria ‘rules of the game’ – to broaden Israel’s military license to act unilaterally and without accountability, in the SW zone of Syria in support of their Israel-friendly jihadis around Quneitra. In practice, this has already begun – albeit under the pretext of Israel responding to cross-border ‘stray fire’.

Possibly, Israel now presumes that the US Administration has lost patience with the regime-change agenda for Damascus (given the collapse of the Saudi-led GCC front).  Washington prefers a quick public victory over ISIS in Raqa’a – and then largely to wash its hands of Syria. US eyes are moving-on — Trump has just decided to scrap the ‘covert’ CIA to arm “moderate” Syrian “rebels”.

So PM Netanyahu probably is trying to salvage what he can of his anti-Iran campaign. On Tuesday, the White House issued a statement pushing Congress to authorise new ‘temporary’ intermediate staging facilities in Iraq and Syria ‘as a part of the US-led campaign against the Islamic State’ (details on existing US bases have just been released by Turkey). But, as Corri Zoli, director of research at Syracuse University’s Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism told Al-Monitor:


“It looks to me like what they’re trying to do is get a little more maneuverability to create some infrastructure for deepening the fight beyond Raqqa and Syria … It’s kind of an attempt to create a lily-pad structure in the Levant to go after [IS] and their entrepreneurial efforts to start miniature caliphates in the region.” Defense Secretary James Mattis, Zoli added, “is thinking a couple steps ahead. He wants to win the peace, stabilize the region and militarily pressure Iran. If he can do it with logistics all the better.”  (CF emphasis added).

So Netanyahu, playing the ‘angry-mad routine,’ may be more about pressuring the US Administration to implement a substitute plan of a lily-pad ‘wedge’ of US ‘temporary facilities’ ranging down from northern Syria into Iraq, designed to sever Iranian contiguity with Syria. In brief,  Netanyahu feigns anger about the shortcomings of the SW Syria ceasefire plan precisely in order to press for an American quid pro quo of lily-pad containment of Iran. But if this is not the case, and Israel does intend to push-back at Iranian and Hizbullah military bases in a wider arc than the Golan armistice line, President Trump has a headache. He might find he is dealing with missiles flying from southern Lebanon into Israel.

Finally, although it is widely understood that Mattis may have inherited strong opinions about Iran from his own particular experience in Iraq during his military service there, his present responsibilities require a broader view.  Simply stated, regional stability – America’s stated interest – is contingent on Iranian good offices being forthcoming, whether Mattis cares for it, or not. 

Israel’s former head of NSC, Yaakov Amidror, is surely right in pointing out so bluntly (most likely with official sanction) that Israel interests diverge from those of America: “At the end of the day it is our responsibility, not the responsibility of the Americans, or the Russians, to guarantee ourselves, and we will take all the measures that are needed for that,” he said. Explaining how the Americans and Russians — with whom Israel has good ties and a dialogue — agreed to a deal that could allow for a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, Amidror said that the Russian strategic goal in the cease-fire was to ensure that Assad’s regime remains, and the American strategic goal was to destroy Islamic State. Israel, he said, needs to “take care of its strategic goal,” which he defined as “keeping Iran and Syria from building launching pads in Syria.” Amidror said that that while Israel obviously wants to see the killing in Syria end, “the price can’t be having Iran and Hezbollah on our borders.” He said that Israel has both diplomatic and military options to keep this from happening, and said “both options should be used.” 

Mattis might care to sup with Bibi Netanyahu with a very ‘long spoon’ . 

Leave a Reply