Last November, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman visited Saudi Arabia, sat in a spacious armchair in the palace of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, aka MBS, and went on to write a piece in The New York Times under the bombastic headline: “The Saudi Arab Spring, at last.” In fact, it was nothing more than an embarrassing, obsequious op-ed. It glorified the Saudi prince who described the economic reforms he was introducing into the kingdom as an “Arab Spring.” In practice, the archaic Saudi kingdom has been and remains the Number One Enemy of the Arab Spring. There is no connection between MBS’s reforms and real democratic change in the kingdom.
Recently, Friedman was invited by the Israel Defense Forces to act as the mouthpiece of the Israeli propaganda machine, warning of a war between Israel and Iran on Syrian soil. A very senior military officer (perhaps the Chief of Staff) openly admitted to Friedman that Israel had targeted a military base in Syria, an assault in which the head of the Revolutionary Guards drone unit, with the rank of colonel, was killed.
In other words, from Israel’s most senior officer to America’s most senior correspondent, Israel – without explicitly saying so – declared war on Iran. The Iranians had no choice but to “take off their kid gloves” and state via the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson that “the Zionist entity will receive an appropriate response.” It appears that the bad years in Israeli-Iranian relations are over and the worse are about to begin. What appears to be the end of the Syrian civil war is becoming, before our eyes, the beginning of a new war for the future of Syria, with Iran and Israel as major competitors.
Since the outbreak of the popular uprising against Assad, Iran mobilized in his favor and has done in Syria as it does at home. Israel, on the other hand, played the game of “neutrality”; its official position calls for “no interference in the Syrian civil war.” The meaning of this “balanced” position can be understood as follows: The genocide carried out by the Syrian regime is not Israel’s business. The longer the war lasts and the greater the destruction, the better for Israel.
This cynical game reached its peak in 2013, when US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, struck a deal on dismantling chemical weapons in Syria, following a large-scale chemical attack in the Ghouta suburbs. The assault, which claimed more than 1400 lives, crossed President Obama’s “red line,” and the US administration vowed to respond militarily. But Obama shilly-shallied. Putin jumped at the opportunity, and instead of an air strike against Assad’s regime, Obama agreed to a dubious accord to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons.
Assad took advantage of the non-attack and continued to massacre civilians by more conventional means. The Netanyahu government celebrated the removal of the chemical threat to the citizens of Israel, where the era of gas masks ended. The chemical deal was accompanied by the flight of millions of Syrians from their homes because of murderous, indiscriminate bombings, and the Syrian refugee crisis changed the political map in Europe. But Israel’s worldview was and remains very narrow: The deal is good for the Jews even though it is bad for both the Syrians and those countries to which millions of them have fled.
Israel was not the only land to celebrate the miserable deal which freed Obama from having to attack and saved Assad. Iran also celebrated. The accord to dismantle chemical weapons in Syria turned into a prototype for dismantling the Iranian nuclear program, an accord that Israel strongly opposed and was unable to block. Iran became an ally of the United States and a legitimate player in the war against ISIS. Iran also partnered with Assad and the Russians in the war against the Syrian opposition. For seven years, Iran sank huge sums into reviving the Syrian economy; Hezbollah turned into a major player in the civil war, losing 1700 fighters; and Iran bankrolled Shiite militias in Iraq to the tune of 20,000 fighters. Throughout that period, Israel took delight in seeing Hezbollah hemorrhage in Syria and become too bogged down to engage Israel. Its air force thwarted the transfer of “game-changing” weapons from Iran to Hezbollah – with the silent acquiescence of the Russians.
Not only did Iran gain a foothold in Syria but the Russians, invited in by Assad, became the real landlords there. They carried out horrific aerial attacks on Syrian cities, the foremost being Aleppo, and saved Assad’s regime from certain defeat. Here, too, Israel looked on from the sidelines and did not utter a word about atrocities occurring just kilometers from its northern border. Netanyahu decided that the best strategy was to maintain a secure hotline with Putin.
The agreement with Putin is simple: Israel will not act to topple Assad and will not object to the Russian takeover of Syria. In exchange, it seeks freedom to act against attempts to transfer arms from Iran to Hezbollah. Putin, for his part, wants Israel to accept the Russian presence in Syria, but this presence also requires close cooperation with Iran. A Russian presence requires Iran’s consent because Russia does not have many boots on the ground; without Iran, Assad’s regime will again be in danger of collapse.
Israel has no interest in seeing Assad toppled. In this respect it is in lockstep not only with Russia, but with the Americans. After the unconvincing air strike in response to Assad’s recent chemical attack in Douma, the Americans declared that they had no intention of replacing Assad. In fact, Assad has gained immunity from all factions operating in Syria and continues to survive as Syria bleeds. So we have reached a situation in which no one wants to overthrow Assad; every player needs him to serve its own interests. Israel wants to go back to the status quo ante consisting of the long-term cease-fire it has enjoyed since the 1973 war. Iran has completely opposite plans: Seeking to become a regional power, it is creating an Iranian corridor through Iraq and Syria to the Lebanese coast. Israel must accept the fact that Assad’s Syria exists in theory alone and that the country is divided between Iran, Turkey, the United States and Russia.
Israel’s attempts to pry the Iranians from Syria are leading to a head-on collision with them and indirectly with the Russians. The Israeli message to the Russians is straightforward: If you want to keep Assad in power in order to gain legitimacy for your airbase in Khmeimim and a naval base in Tartous, get rid of the Iranians. The choice is either Assad or Iran, Israel will not allow any arrangement at the expense of its strategic interest.
However, despite warm relations between Netanyahu and Trump, and the latter’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw from Syria “very soon” leaves Israel, on its 70th birthday, flying solo. It seems that Teheran is not interested in an open war with Israel, given stiff domestic opposition to its Syrian adventure. Putin also is afraid of opening a front against Israel, while Netanyahu is reluctant to involve the IDF and the home front in a war that could prove to be costly and destructive. It might be impossible to square the circle: each side is entrenched in its position, and all of them together are being pushed to the edge against their will.
The Syrian Spring broke out with the hope of regime change and the establishment of a modern democratic state. Assad gassed civilians; Iran enlisted Hezbollah; Putin built military bases to expand his empire; Obama refused to support the democratic Syrian opposition; Saudi Arabia and Qatar armed extreme Sunni militias; Israel watched and relished; all of them wiped out any hope for a democratic future in Syria. The only way to stop further bloodshed, and a war between Israel and Iran, is the withdrawal of all foreign forces. If there is any hope for a democratic future in Syria, Assad must go. Currently this option is not on the agenda. Trump, Erdogan, Putin, Khamenei, and Netanyahu do not believe in democracy. Syria has become a reflection of the world at the beginning of the 21st century.
– Translated from the Hebrew by Robert Goldman