With Israel and Iran clashing over Syria, no end in sight for the conflict

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In Syria, the conflict is no longer primarily Syrian. With seven years of political and military escalation, Syria has turned into a regional theater of mini-wars, with a new regional clash in the making.

While it is hard to make cause-effect assertions in a civil war, it is possible to identify overlapping layers of tension. A secular, peaceful uprising against oppression rapidly lost its focus facing a brutal regime. A civil war started and sectarian sentiments exploded: a Sunnite majority called for ending Alawite domination. Iranian forces and the Lebanese Shiite Militia Hezbollah entered Syria to prevent the fall of President Assad’s unpopular regime. Iran’s intervention provoked Sunnite Arab Gulf states. Some Sunni Arab rulers funded Islamist rebels and covertly lobbied with Israel to try to slow Iran’s growing influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. A revolt by the Kurds in Syria alarmed Turkey along its south-eastern border. In a widening civil war, Islamists mobilized to revive a Caliphate on the Syrian and Iraqi soil.

Limited by a cold war culture, Washington and Moscow failed as mediators of peace; the former supported the divided Sunni rebel groups and the latter backed the authoritarian, Syrian regime and foreign Shiite militias. The crisis continues to bring in new players from the outside.

The latest phase in this expanding and evolving regional crisis is the entry of Israel into the Syrian battlefield, albeit with air power- so far. Israeli air missile attacks on the Syrian army, Hezbollah and Iranian targets are no longer easily denied. Israel’s direct participation in the Syrian war must have contributed to a collective decision to launch a “punitive-educational” missile attack on the Syrian regime. Israel secretly lobbied its western allies to hit hard in Syria, focusing on Iranian related assets. But European leaders pushed in the opposite direction, cautioning against targeting the regime, Iran or Russia.

It is customary for Washington to listen closely to Tel-Aviv in dealing with Mideast crises. Without Israel’s diplomatic intervention, it would be hard to explain the sudden change in US tactics: one day Trump declares imminent departure of troops and the next he asks for sending “smart and beautiful” missiles to the Russians.

Thomas Friedman’s (NYT) column The Real Next War in Syria: Iran vs. Israel is sobering. Friedman expects the next Mideast war to take place between Israel and the Persian state. He believes that Israel is preparing to do what it takes to stop Iran from establishing air- defense structures in Syria – the way Hezbollah has achieved in Lebanon.

In less than two weeks the pace of change in tactics has augmented but the broad schemes in Syria have not altered. On April 4, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw US troops. On April 7, the alleged Syrian chemical attack occurred on al Ghouta, an eastern suburb of Damascus. It is not clear yet whether the Syrian regime used toxic gas – to finalize eviction of Islamist rebels from al Ghouta, or whether the desperate rebels, themselves, orchestrated the release of hazardous material to implicate the regime in a new war crime. For more interesting speculation on this overdramatized and de-contextualized story of injustice read Rober Fisk’s analysis.

In response to Trump’s declaration of troop withdrawal from Syria Israel expressed strong anger for being left alone to face Iran and Hezbollah. On April 9, Israel attacked Iranian advanced air defenses in Syria- killing seven officers in this provocative act- to make the point that the primary enemy is Tehran. In three weeks, Israel has managed to escape from a position of “accused” for its live bullet assaults on unarmed weekly protesters in Gaza to a position of a “responsible partner” in collective action against chemical weapons.

On April 13, a coalition of US, British and French forces mounted a cruise missile attack on three assets associated with chemical weapons. This trilateral attack was obviously a punitive response against alleged use of chemical weapons, and it was also a message that the US and its allies stand firm in defending their strategic interests in Syria. In his usual bragging style, Trump immediately declared the “mission accomplished”; subsequently, Nicky Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, asserted that the troops will stay in Syria as long as it takes.

In the Arab world, the reaction to the attack on Syria reflected fratricidal regional politics. With the presence of 13 heads of states, the Arab League met in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and blamed Iran for all their troubles. Out of fear, this Arab summit did not dwell on the US-led attack.

In contrast to their leaders, ordinary Arab citizens generally resent western aggression on any Arab state. Critics of US policy in the region are totally convinced that Israel played a strong role in pushing for a military response against Iran and Hezbollah. But Israel seems to have failed to convince Washington to take a stronger action against Iran and Hezbollah in the April 13 attack. Tel-Aviv continues to pressure Washington to keep the existing 2000 US foot soldiers in Syria and to lobby for wider US presence to “adequately” address Iranian presence in the region. Israel’s April 9 air assault on Iranian armed forces was an indication that Prime Minister Netanyahu is preparing for war with Iran and its allies in Syria and Lebanon.

Regretfully, the interests of the Syrian people remain a secondary factor in the calculus of decision makers. Seven years passed, half a million died, half a population displaced, the heartbeat of Arab world failing, all this, and there is no visionary plan for Syria or for Palestine. Tehran and Tel-Aviv seem to move closer to a real confrontation in Syria. I hope that the people of Israel and the people of Iran would resist sending their young people to a bloody war in which both sides will lose, and the entire region will suffer.