The Impending Clash Between Israel and Iran in Syria

The gradual victory of the Syrian regime of Pres. Assad over the variety of anti-regime elements, including the Free Syrian Army, the various Islamist groups, particularly IS, and the Kurdish forces, could not have succeeded without the close military support of the Russian air force and the ground forces of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah.  From a low of controlling only ca. 25% of Syria, he now controls ca. 60% of the country.  He was helped by the alliance of the US and other western allies with the Kurdish and Sunni Arab militias, which were largely responsible for defeating IS.  But, the Kurdish groups have been neutralized by the intervention in northern Syria of Turkey, which nominally opposes Assad, but helps his cause by attacking the Kurds.

As a result of this general success, the regime forces have attacked and captured the south-western Syrian province of Dera’a which was an anti-regime stronghold, where the insurrection against Assad started.  The Russians apparently arranged their surrender in exchange for giving up their heavy weapons.  This brings Assad’s forces close to the Jordanian and Israeli borders.  On the Golan, Israel has been helping the anti-Assad forces with intelligence and taking their wounded for treatment in Israel.  But, in the wake of the Syrian Army advance and the Russian bombing, it is estimated that ca. 160,000 civilians have left the region and have moved west towards the Golan, where they hope to be protected by Israeli intervention.  Now with they surrender of Dera’a province it is expected that they will return en masse.

Israel has made it clear that they do not want to become embroiled in the Syrian civil war, but will not allow Iranian forces (the al Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards) and Hezbollah to entrench themselves on the Golan adjacent to Israel.  So far Israeli intervention in Syria has been restricted to striking largely Iranian and Hezbollah facilities storing missiles and other weapons caches.  But, the Iranians, although they have not been able to strike back, have continued their strategy of infiltrating their forces into Syria behind the victorious Syrian Army.  In fact, they have gone so far to avoid detection as to have their Iranian soldiers dressed in Syrian Army uniforms, so that it is almost impossible for the IDF to distinguish them.

How the IDF will manage to accomplish its mission to stop the Iranian and Hezbollah forces from entrenching themselves on the Golan while at the same time avoiding conflict with Syrian forces and particularly with the Russian air force is a serious problem. It is for this reason that PM Netanyahu is going once again to meet Pres. Putin in Moscow on Weds.  It has been reported that Putin has agreed with the Israeli aim of removing Iran from Syria.  However, so far there is no sign of that happening.  It would be in Russian’s interest to become the dominant force in Syria rather than Iran, and Israel would certainly prefer this.  But, whether or not such an outcome can be managed in the present circumstances remains very much an open question.  Failing that, there is likely to be an expanded war between the IDF and the Iranian forces in Syria, also with unknown consequences.

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