Opinion/How Netanyahu Saved Assad, Helped Russia and Gave Iran the Run of Syria
كايل أورتن/هآرتس: كيف أنقذ نتنياهو الأسد وساعد روسيا وأعطى إيران مجالاً لإدارة سوريا
Kyle Orton/Haaretz/April 08/19
As Assad consolidates power, Israel’s prime minister is basking in plaudits for his ‘prescient’ strategy on Syria. But Netanyahu has been played – and exposing Israel to potentially disastrous consequences
As the regime of Bashar Assad appears to be consolidating in Syria, many Israelis have concluded that their government’s handling of the crisis was generally laudable.
The most comprehensive statement of this view was given recently in Haaretz by Anshel Pfeffer (Netanyahu Outfoxed Russia, Iran and ISIS With His Cynical, Ruthless Syria Policy.) Every aspect of this is open to question.
Clearly Pfeffer is no apologist for the Israeli government, and Haaretz no government mouthpiece, which is what makes his case all the more important – and worrying. Pfeffer states outright that for him “complimenting [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu…on the eve of an election…is hardly an easy thing to do.”
Pfeffer credits Netanyahu for getting four big things right in Syria: avoiding entanglement in the contest between the Assad regime and the rebellion, recognizing the Islamic State as a menace and preventing terrorist infiltration, containing and deterring Iran, and deftly handling the Russians.
In truth, Netanyahu, far from having orchestrated a genius-level strategy, has exposed Israel up to potentially disastrous consequences.
Let’s examine each of these contentions in turn.
Pfeffer praised Netanyahu for his double scepticism: that the “Arab spring” revolt could unseat Assad, and that his downfall would be beneficial to Israel. When “[s]ome Western leaders supported shipping advanced weapons to the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups in Syria, Netanyahu counseled caution,” Pfeffer says.
This reluctance to help the Syrian opposition was “prescient,” since these weapons could have fallen into the hands of ISIS. Netanyahu “was one of the first leaders to identify the significance of the rise of Islamic State in the power vacuum that had been created in Syria and Iraq.”
First, this account gets the timeline and causality all wrong. The “vacuum” that ISIS crept into was opened up because the Assad regime – supported by Iran and Russia – created it, deliberately bombing and destabilizing rebel areas, while leaving ISIS to grow and even helping to foster it and similar jihadist groups.
Among other things, Assad released Islamist militants from prison at the outset to try to divide and discredit the uprising, and by 2017 oil and gas sales to the regime were ISIS’s largest source of revenue, above even the “taxes” the terrorists had been taking from the population under its control. It was keeping Assad in place that helped ISIS grow.
Moreover, ISIS and other extremist groups never lacked for the heavy weapons – like surface-to-air missiles – that Netanyahu helped prevent the mainstream rebels acquiring. The extremists could simply use their better sources of funding to buy the weapons from Assad himself, so corrupt was and is his regime. Only the mainstream rebels, whose so-called supporters offered words of encouragement and very little else, struggled for resources.
Had proper and sufficient weaponry been supplied to the mainstream opposition in time to complete the revolution, it might have forestalled the rise of ISIS altogether in Syria, and would have at a minimum bettered the odds of the least-worst forces, from Israel’s perspective, when the rebellion went to war with ISIS – and found itself simultaneously being attacked by the Assad regime, which provided de facto air support to the jihadists. (Russia took over these tactics later to help further the narrative of a binary choice in Syria: the dictator or the terrorists).
Pfeffer says that while Netanyahu was right to remain on the “sidelines” of the underlying war in Syria – the rebels against Assad – this did not “mean he shied away from acting in Syria, quite the opposite.” Netanyahu drew and enforced clear red lines against the Iranians, says Pfeffer, attacking the aid convoys to Hezbollah, the Islamic Republican Guards Corps (IRGC) bases – indeed blocking the formation of “permanent bases” by Iran – and even killing IRGC commanders like Jihad Mughniyeh when necessary.
But Netanyahu did get involved in the main Syrian war, albeit incoherently, by initially putting his thumb on the scale against American anti-Assad actions (not that Barack Obama needed much encouragement) and then, belatedly, providing support for opposition groups.
The Israeli-supported rebels provided a buffer against Iran and ISIS in the southern Syrian provinces of Deraa and Qunaytra (the Golan Heights) that border Israel. In July 2018, Netanyahu got played by the Russians into letting Deraa fall to Iranian-controlled forces. The goodwill Israel had built up by providing Syrians with food, medical care, and the means to protect themselves was pointlessly squandered, and Israel’s assets were co-opted by Hizbollah.
Beyond that, even in the coldest “realist” terms, as defined by Netanyahu himself, the fall of Deraa was a disaster. As Pfeffer notes, “Netanyahu always saw Iran as a much bigger threat than ISIS,” yet he facilitated the replacement of the ISIS pocket with IRGC-run militias. The harvest is already before us, with Hezbollah terrorist cells organizing for cross-border attacks into Israel from Syria.
The story Pfeffer tells about Netanyahu’s “timely, effective” action against Iran in Syria echoes what was said when Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot resigned in January this year. Like Pfeffer, Eisenkot identified the Iranian drive for a permanent position in Syria as having begun in 2017 – five years after Iran’s decisive intervention with thousands of IRGC-controlled ground forces. By now, Iran’s social and military power is woven into the fabric of Syria, positioned to outlast Assad.
In other words, Iran has a position in Syria that is as permanent as it gets. And this is not surprising: Eisenkot said clearly that Israel largely did not even intend to eliminate the IRGC operatives who are key to Iran’s project in Syria. Eisenkot’s reasoning was that Israel could disrupt Iran’s project by striking at infrastructure, and not killing Iranian personnel would avoid provoking Iranian retaliation.
There are several problems with this. One is that, in the execution, Israel has vastly exaggerated both the scale of its operations in Syria, as well as their efficacy. But more serious is the conceptual problem: it is personnel who do the networking and ideological dissemination that entrenches Iran’s influence, so putting them off-limits is an error. Moreover, even on its own terms, Eisenkot’s argument has hit diminishing returns, with Iran sending armed drones into Israel from Syria.