Category Archives: Israel – Syrian Conflict

America Needs a Syria Policy to Avoid a Regional Conflagration

{Previously published in the Jerusalem Post}

Trump has put America in a position of strength by withdrawing from the JCPOA and re-imposing sanctions.

According to Steven Cook of the Council for Foreign Relations, “the Syrian war is over and America lost… Washington has proved either unable or unwilling to shape events in the Middle East… which is to say, it has abdicated its own influence.”

But is it too late or still in American interests to influence the endgame in Syria and beyond?

American foreign policy in Syria since 2014 has prioritized the defeat of ISIS, choosing to sideline the more important and challenging confrontation with Iran over its permanent entrenchment and expansionism in the region. Syria is just one theater of operation among many interconnected pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which includes Iraq and Lebanon, where all roads lead to a malevolent Iran.

But Syria is ground zero with its outcome still uncertain, still susceptible to American influence, and affecting all aspects of Iran’s quest for a Shi’ite corridor to the Mediterranean. America’s Syrian policy or lack of one reverberates throughout the region and the world.

The Trump administration has been saying all the right things about Iran’s malign influence on American security interests. The administration has put the world on notice that it is not business as usual and has taken tangible actions, including withdrawing from JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal) and re-imposing escalating sanctions against Iran and her proxies, in part because of its role in the Syrian civil war.

But the next crucial step for the administration is to articulate a longer term, more comprehensive policy with a less ad hoc approach in Syria. The goal is nothing less than a return of American leverage in the region to advance our interests. This is in direct contradistinction to the isolationist approach of Stephen Walt of Harvard who wrote in Foreign Policy that he would like to forge an alliance with socialists against American exceptionalism and outsized influence in the region. (This the same Walt who, with John Mearsheimer has been arguing that America is fooled by the “Israel lobby” into thinking Israel is an ally worth supporting.)

To advance American interests, the president will need to overcome his impulse to prematurely withdraw troops from Syria, as their presence is essential to prevent Syria from becoming a permanent Iranian base threatening Israel and Jordan, which would fly in the face of US President Donald Trump’s stated vision.

This is the lesson to have learned from former president Barack Obama’s disastrous premature withdrawal of American soldiers from Iraq after the successful surge, which left Iran in the driver seat in today’s Iraqi politics, undermining American interests.

America must articulate its strategic goals and redlines to all the actors operating within the Syria theater, so miscalculations can be avoided and small problems won’t snowball into a significant escalation. The accidental Syrian downing of a Russian plane with blame ascribed to Israel is a case in point.

It was just a matter of time before Russia and Israel crossed paths in the crowded skies over Syria.

Without an American Syria policy, Russia can distance itself from cooperating with Israel without repercussions, while avoiding putting any pressure against Iran’s permanent presence in Syria, which they know crosses Israel’s existential redline.

Russia took notice when America did not utter a peep while Russia invaded Syria’s de-escalation zones in Daraa and Quneitra without paying any price. With a lack of an American policy on Syria, Russia feels free to threaten Israel, now offering to supply the advanced S-300 anti-missile system to the Assad regime.

An American Syria policy should not only make clear that Israeli strikes on Iranian military targets is in American interest, but be willing to enforce a no-fly zone over its Kurdish and moderate Sunni allies in the 40% of Syria they still control.

The downing of the Russian jet is just the tip of the iceberg for future game changing confrontations that threaten to bring the local war of Israeli preemptive attacks into a regional conflagration. The lack of an American policy and redlines contributes greatly to regional instability, while Israel is more isolated without an American plan for its interests in the Levant.

So what should be America’s Syria policy?

1. America will support its Kurdish and moderate Sunni allies in Syria. This does not mean any more boots on the ground, but does mean that America won’t leave Syria until Iran, and its proxies, the PMU’s (Iranian controlled Shi’ite militias) and Hezbollah are permanently gone. According to James Phillips and Luke Coffey writing for the Heritage Foundation.

“The pace of (US) withdrawal should be based on security conditions on the ground in eastern Syria, not on a pre-determined timetable.

2. America supports Israel’s objective to end any permanent Iranian presence in Syria. As the Washington Institute of Near East Policy’s Assaf Orion, Anna Borshchevskaya and Matthew Levitt wrote, “So long as Iran and its agents – especially foreign fighters – are active in Syria, US policy should be to contain the Assad regime and oppose steps that would strengthen it.”

3. America’s goal is the complete disarmament of Hezbollah in Lebanon according to UNSC Resolution 1701, even if it is not realistic at the moment.

4. America considers Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, PMU’s, or any political entity controlled by Iran to be the equivalent of an Iranian presence, and will hold Iran responsible for any attacks on Americans or her allies.

5. Reaffirm America’s commitment to NATO, as this directly confronts Russian influence in Syria. However, all NATO members i.e., Turkey, must not integrate any non-NATO military systems into NATO defenses. NATO is still important, even if Turkey decides to commit suicide by aligning with Russia and Iran, and is forced from the alliance.

Trump has put America in a position of strength by withdrawing from the JCPOA and re-imposing sanctions. But the president must realize that the revolutionary Islamist entity of Iran will let its people starve before capitulating to the West.

Former US secretary of state John Kerry has told the Iranians that they should wait out this administration. Let’s leave aside how inappropriate this is for a former secretary of state. The Iranians do plan to wait this president out for a more compliant president, no matter how harshly present-day sanctions affect its people, and Iran will not leave Syria any time soon. That is why it is important to articulate a longterm American policy that the next administration will have a harder time distancing itself from.

America’s national interest is not isolationism. “Mission accomplished” in Syria may be generations away. America needs patience, something this president and every one before has shown little interest in. No less than American and Israeli security interests are at stake.

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of the Senate, House, and their foreign policy advisors. He is a regular columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, and The Forward.

Why Israel Needs to Prepare America for the Upcoming Conflict in Syria         

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

Israel successfully destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility, so it is no stretch of the imagination to believe Israel would act again if its intelligence detected Iranian nuclear development in Syria.

For the next 10 days Israel will be simulating war conditions with Hezbollah, in its largest military exercise in over 20 years. Although the exercise is based upon a Lebanese battlefield, the Syrian frontier is equally problematic, with Hezbollah and Iran embedded within Syrian regime positions.
After listening and speaking to some of Israel’s most trusted analysts on security and intelligence, visiting the Lebanese and Syrian borders, and speaking with active and reserve officers in the field, I am confident that Israel is deadly serious about challenging a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, Hezbollah aggression, and Iranian missile bases in Russian-protected areas.

Israel’s tacit agreement with Russia to avoid misunderstandings over Israeli military actions in Syria targeting weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah is now in jeopardy, in part because the Syrian situation has evolved in favor of Assad, Russia and most significantly Iran. Consideration for Israel’s security challenges doesn’t hold much weight anymore for the Russians.

Most significantly, the Trump administration has agreed to leave it to Russia to enforce a Syrian de-escalation agreement, which legitimizes a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.

According to the London-based Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, the United States acquiesced to an Iranian presence less than10 kilometers from the Israeli border in the Golan. This is a game changer. This will allow Iran and Hezbollah to strike Israel from Syria, while avoiding Israeli retaliation in Lebanon.

Gen. (ret.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of research in the IDF Military Intelligence division and director general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry wrote, “Iran almost assuredly wants to turn Syria into an Iranian military base… so that instead of threatening Israel from 1,300 kilometers away, the Iranian forces could sit on Israel’s doorstep. This would bring about a dramatic change in the nature of the threat Israel is facing.”

He also believes that Iran may also be considering moving nuclear development into the unmonitored Syrian frontier to avoid IAEA detection of violations in Iran.

Ten years ago Israel successfully destroyed a Syrian nuclear facility, so it is no stretch of the imagination to believe Israel would act again if its intelligence detected Iranian nuclear development in Syria.

An Israeli tipping point may have been reached, forcing Israel to either be resigned to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria or significantly increase its operations in Syria, potentially escalating into a wider regional war.

According to Yediot Aharonot, “Russia has reportedly stationed its advanced S-400 anti-missile defense system near an Iranian arms factory in Syria, which allegedly manufactures long-range guided missiles for Hezbollah.”

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pravda reported that Putin’s response to Netanyahu’s complaints was “Iran is Russia’s strategic ally in the Middle East.”

So will Russia use its S-400 anti-aircraft system against an IAF attack on its Shi’ite allies? A successful Israeli attack would require Israel to knock out any S-400 system defending the target.

How would the Russians respond to the deaths of Russian soldiers manning the S-400? Can anyone predict how Trump and co. would respond to an Israeli attack killing Russian soldiers? A regional conflict now becomes a possibility.

As former head of the National Security Council Yaakov Amidror said, “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.”

There is no doubt the Iranians will be testing Israel very soon, feeling secure that no one including the US will come to their aid. American resolve to stand by an essential ally will be severely tested, as many US allies will not choose Israel’s side if Israel acts.

The West mistakenly believes the imminent defeat of Islamic State (ISIS) will stabilize Syria and the surrounding region, but nothing could be further from the truth. ISIS with its offshoots will turn back to insurgency, while the Islamist Iranian victors solidify their land corridor to the Mediterranean.

The region could be ignited with a single match. That light could be a significant Israeli attack in Syria in response to the increased military transfers facilitated by a permanent Iranian presence, starting the engine toward a wider regional conflagration.

This is why Israel must prepare its American ally sooner rather than later to know that Israel may not be able to sit idly by while Iran’s uses its new base to transfer more and more powerful weaponry to Hezbollah.

Serious questions need to be asked and debated in Jerusalem and Washington.

• How will Jordan and the more moderate Sunni States be affected by the permanent Iranian presence in Syria? • How will Israeli actions affect US-Israeli relations?

• To what extent will Russia actively participate beyond coordinating with Syria and Iran?

• Would a third recertification of the JCPOA in October increase Iranian adventurism in Lebanon and Syria? The Iranian hegemonic expansion is not a new phenomenon, but a long and well planned one, as it tries to reproduce the glory days of the ancient Persian empires. Today’s territorial gains in Syria should be considered phase two, with phase one beginning 30 years ago when Iran sponsored Hezbollah.

Phase two began during the 2011 “Arab Winter” with US president Barack Obama’s withdrawal from the region creating the opportunity for Iran to move into both Syria and Iraq.

In the past few years, Hezbollah has grown from a formidable terrorist entity to effectively controlling all of the Lebanese government with terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East and South America, all under Iranian control.

What we do know is that Iran and Hezbollah’s permanent presence in Syria is dangerous for Israel, America and the West.

It is not too late for American diplomatic leadership to balance interests and turn down the heat, but that would mean America challenging Russian authority to make the rules in Syria and renegotiating the deal in Amman.

If the administration fails to act, Congress should take the lead, speaking clearly to the American people about how Iran’s newfound dominance in the region undermines American national security interests.

Expect the EU to be completely unhelpful, as it is blinded by the economic benefits of the JCPOA. It will bend over backwards to be on the side of Iran.

Which brings us back to Israel. It has already sent high-level security and intelligence teams to speak to the Trump administration warning it about the evolving danger in Syria.

An American commitment to back up Israel if Iran does not decrease its presence in Syria would actually decrease the chance for conflict, as knowing the red lines might make Iran think twice before challenging Israel or expanding further into the Golan.

The Trump Middle East Israeli-Palestinian peace team should also refocus their efforts away from the improbable quest for conflict resolution and get their head into the real game in the Middle East, Iranian control of Syria, one that could set the region on fire.

The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. Dr. Mandel regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.