More articles by
Yacov Ben Efrat
Israel is being dragged into the Syrian war
"The government is dragging us into war," cautioned Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin in Yediot Aharonot (October 22), warning that “any person with eyes in his head must mobilize to end this government’s term before we reach a disaster." It seems that Levin is asking Israelis to give more than they can. Netanyahu is popular, and apparently those who have "eyes in their heads" are a minority. Further, it is doubtful whether Levin's eyes were always open. If they were, he might have awakened much earlier when there was still time to prevent the calamity. The Syrian crisis was not born last week.
To be precise, the process leading to war began on September 14, 2013, the day that John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov signed an agreement to dismantle the chemical weapons in Syria. This agreement saved Assad from an American strike that could have led to his overthrow and would have hindered the spread of Iranian influence in Syria. Obama had stated that the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Assad deliberately crossed it with a chemical attack in Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus, where the death toll exceeded 1,300 civilians. But Obama backtracked, Assad survived, and only four years later Netanyahu was forced to declare "We will not allow Iran to establish itself on our northern border." Netanyahu, like others in Israel, had failed to foresee what would await Israel, and with it, the entire world.
Following the chemical agreement between Kerry and Lavrov, the defense establishment stopped distributing gas masks, and Israel breathed a sigh of relief. The deal looked very good to Israel, but it was very bad for the Syrian people. But who cared? Everyone was satisfied: Obama sidestepped a potentially unpopular military intervention in Syria, Russia saved its ally, and Israel benefited twofold: the strategic threat of chemical weapons was eliminated, and the civil war could be expected to continue indefinitely. A war in which Syria and the Arab world are smashed to smithereens is viewed by Netanyahu as a strategic plus. The government’s official position was: "We will not interfere in the Syrian civil war." After all, why intervene when the Syrians are doing such a good job? Worse still, in December 2016, apparently under Russian pressure, Netanyahu even instructed Israel's UN delegation to abstain from a vote to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Syria.
However, the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons Agreement that saved Assad triggered two events that played into Iranian hands. The deal between the United States and Russia did avert an American attack on Syria at the last minute, but it also put an end to expectations that the West would deliver Syrian citizens from a terrible massacre. It allowed the Assad regime to slaughter its own people by barrel-bombing helpless civilians. Desperation caused the Syrian democratic opposition to retreat, which helped ISIS. Millions of Syrian refugees fled to Europe, and in response to right-wing and xenophobic pressure there, the British prime minister resigned following his defeat in the Brexit vote. A few months later, Clinton lost to Trump.
The agreement banning Syria's chemical weapons had two further ramifications: it gave Russia total guardianship over Syria and it paved the way for the nuclear deal with Iran. Thus Netanyahu’s troubles began. He left no stone unturned to block the deal with Iran, including a pathos-filled speech before the US Congress, but he failed. Obama was resolved to pivot away from the Middle East, and for that reason, Netanyahu had no choice but to reach an understanding with the Russians. Then came Trump. Despite his harsh statements against Iran and the nuclear deal, he failed to take firm action, even cooperating with Iran in the war against ISIS in Mosul. Most recently, the US turned its back on the Kurds when the Iraqi army, along with militias funded by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, took control of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, expelling the Kurdish Peshmerga troops from the city.
Moreover, the Israeli government chose to remain silent when Putin decided to commit the entire weight of his army to save Assad's regime in September 2015. The Russian Air Force completely demolished Aleppo, bombed hospitals, markets and schools in order to crush the anti-Assad rebels. While Russian planes did the job from the air, the Shiite militias and Hezbollah put boots on the ground and occupied the area, killing indiscriminately. For some time, Iran has been a partner of the United States in Iraq and, at the same time, a collaborator with Russia in Syria. The Americans have become accustomed to Russian war crimes in Syria.
When Russian warplanes crushed Aleppo, Netanyahu traveled to Moscow, not to dissuade Putin from committing crimes against humanity, but to arrive at an understanding with the new landlord in Syria. After their meeting, Netanyahu declared, "I have made clear our policy to thwart arms transfers in various ways, as well as Iran's attempts to establish a second terror front against us. I stated clearly that we would take action against this." He added, "There was no opposition to this. Whatever Russia's intention in Syria, he [Russia] will not be part of Iran's aggressive activity against us."
Despite all the coordination, declarations, and "understandings" with Putin, Iran has solidified its position in Syria, as well as in Iraq, in accordance with agreements signed with the Russians and Turks in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, which I wrote about in an earlier article. Astana is a further step toward the empowerment of the so-called Russian-Iranian-Turkish axis in Syria, with the Damascus region going to Tehran. Iran has invested a great deal of money and soldiers in Syria, and like Russia, it wishes to enjoy the fruits of the victory.
Netanyahu was not invited to Astana, and his American friends had to be satisfied with the status of observer. So all that was left for Netanyahu was to plead with the Russians to consider Israeli interests and not allow a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. But this is unrealistic. Russia's control of Syria depends on its partnership with Iran. Without Iranian-Shiite militias and Hezbollah, Russia has no hold on the ground. Assad’s army is in shambles, and without Iranian fighters, Assad has no control.
The recent meeting in Damascus between the Syrian and Iranian chiefs of staff was intended to make clear to Israel that the Iranian presence in Syria is not temporary, and that it will continue as long as Assad is in power. Thus what began with Israeli non-intervention in Syria, followed by close coordination with the Russians, has now turned into a policy of growing intervention in an attempt to influence Syria’s future. Those who ignored Assad's crimes, seeking to benefit from genocide and civil war, are now paying the price of their short-sightedness and evil. And do not, by the way, blame Netanyahu alone. Silence in the face of genocide, and in the face of the biggest refugee tragedy since World War II, enjoyed a wall-to-wall consensus here. In the entire Israeli establishment, coalition and opposition alike, no one can claim to have clean hands.
- Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman