Following the infiltration of the Iranian drone into Israel’s air space and Israel’s retaliation, the public discourse in recent days focused mainly on the security aspect and the various ways to address it. However, the situation in Syria is increasingly becoming a diplomatic issue, that requires action through sensitive and complex diplomatic channels vis-à-vis various players in the international community.
Although Iran’s move is considered an escalation, it should not come as a surprise. This is a step up in the exchange of messages between the sides, but we can safely assume that Israel anticipated that its actions, according to foreign and/or Syrian sources, would sooner or later provoke a counter-reaction. After all, the Syrian regime has reacted to attacks, presumably carried out by Israel, in a number of cases in the past. In this regard, Iran’s move may be seen as a Syrian-Iranian attempt to draw some red lines, indicating that the military freedom of action in Syria, long enjoyed by Israel, should not be taken for granted.
Either way, the Israeli interests remain unchanged and focus on two main levels.
The first interest relates to preventing Iran from establishing itself in Syria, or at least weakening its hold on the state, especially in the areas adjacent to the border with Israel and Jordan. Therefore, we must focus on a series of diplomatic measures:
First, reaching some understandings with the relevant actors – Iran, and the Assad regime – in Syria. The tightening Iran’s grip on Syria is a reality that will be extremely difficult to uproot, at least in the short-to- medium term. The goal, then, is to limit or to prevent it from establishing itself in a way that is too threatening to the Syrian-Israeli border. This goal may be achieved with the intervention of international actors who enjoy open channels and a sufficient level of trust, vis-a-vis both sides.
Under the current circumstances, the most prominent actor is Moscow. The intensive dialogue between Israel and Russia allows for a sincere and deep dialogue, even if their interests are not aligned. The convergence of the Russian-Iranian interests is firm and tight, and it cannot be dismantled now. At the same time, Russia has a clear interest in preventing an undesirable escalation that will harm the strengthening of the Assad regime. Israel can leverage this situation in its dialogue with Moscow, while refraining from intense and unpredictable actions, in return.
Although the US has positioned itself in a less influential (albeit largely secondary) position in Syria, it is necessary to closely coordinate the Israeli-American positions. In addition, it is important to coordinate positions with Arab countries, with whom Israel has shared interests and close dialog. Jordan fears, just like Israel, the Iranian hold on Syria. Egypt is watching Iran with concern as it is becoming a stronger regional power, and Saudi Arabia adopted a most assertive policy vis-a-vis Iran. The Israeli message should be that this regional dynamic should be curbed in a coordinated regional diplomatic effort against the Syrian-Iranian axis.
Although Europe has ceded its premiership in Syria to Russia, it is still possible to recruit prominent European players to increase pressure on Iran. Germany can be a good candidate for that. The focus of the Israeli message, at this stage, should be the Syrian context, rather than the nuclear issue. Moreover, diplomatic levers should be used to make it difficult for the Iranians to further establish their presence in Syria. It is essential to expose to the international community the Iranian attempts to establish military bases, in a manner that will prove to the world Iran’s destructive conduct in the region, while establishing that an Iranian nuclear activity is prohibited before reaching a nuclear agreement.
Another Israeli interest, no less important, focuses on preventing an escalation in Lebanon against Hezbollah. Such a confrontation is not necessary as the deterrence that was achieved following the Second Lebanon War still stands and is manifested in the organization’s various public statements. Moreover, the organization is working to strengthen its political involvement in Lebanon and is looking forward to the elections for the Lebanese parliament. This trend could induce a more responsible conduct on its part, which could prevent a slide into violent confrontations to the detriment of Lebanon, as Israel repeatedly warns. Another round of violence will end with a renewed status quo, that is no different from the current one.
The strengthening of Assad’s regime in Syria continues vigorously. Currently, it is clear to all that the regime has been strengthened to such an extent that no one expects or desires to reverse the process, that was achieved thanks to the involvement of Russia and Iran (and Hezbollah). Israel must have an interest in strengthening the regime, who will, most probably, be able to deal more effectively with an excessively dominant Iranian influence. It should be emphasized again that this is a long-term process, since it is clear that Assad currently has neither the ability nor the will to challenge the tightening Iranian dominance in his country. At the same time, it is hard to ignore the moral consideration of the Assad regime. This is a murderous regime that committed war crimes against its own people. However, as Israel did not directly intervene during the civil war in Syria, it must now consolidate its interests in the face of the emerging reality.
In conclusion, it should be remembered that Israel’s strategic balance with Syria, continues to be comfortable, even after the recent escalation. Syria is still in the midst of difficult fighting between the various forces, and Assad’s takeover of the entire country is still far from being over. It should also be remembered that the relationships and interests of the Russia-IranTurkey triangle are in no way smooth. In any event, it is imperative to acknowledge that the freedom of Israeli military action is not unlimited in view of the emerging reality, hence the importance of the political-diplomatic effort. This is a challenge that Israel can and must withstand.
Amb. (ret.) Michael Harari is a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute. He held senior positions at the Foreign Ministry’s Policy Planning Division and Center for Policy Research.