Danger in the north: PM Netanyahu must push Trump to act
Analysis: With the war in Syria winding down, all regional actors are stirring the pot: Iran is building bases, Russia is looking for money, Erdoğan is drawing the border and Kurds are on the hunt for a state; the only one absent is the US president, and the biggest casualty from that abstention is Israel; with all due respect to the Jerusalem embassy, it's time for Netanyahu to bang on the desk in Washington.
The military image on the ground is nevertheless coming into sharper and sharper focus, and it can be determined now that the military coalition supporting the regime of President Bashar Assad has prevailed. Russia, Iran and their proxies have succeeded in reinstating the president who butchered his own people across Syria's land. Or what's left of it.
It can also be determined that despite the fact that the Islamic State has suffered a mortal blow when it lost its self-proclaimed caliphate—or territory under its control in Syria and Iraq—the jihadist organization still perseveres, and continues fighting on the field and for the hearts of believers.
We may also determine that the Sunni Muslim rebel groups, which sparked the civil war to begin with, have long since lost any hope or chance of deposing Assad. They are still trying to defend a handful of enclaves they were able to hold onto from the war's beginning and continue their infighting. Each of them is supported by a different regional patron—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and so on—mostly to further their own interests.
Lastly, it can be safely said that the Syrian Kurd YPG militia, which has shown impressive capabilities at waging war, buttressed as it was by American advisers and Special Forces, has become a significant military and political factor in the Syrian arena.
YPG, in fact, was the only force on the ground that ran the Islamic State off from its main strongholds east of the Euphrates River (as both the Americans and Europeans bombarded from the air).
The Kurdish militia made no bones regarding displaying its intention to create a country—or at the very least an autonomous district—in northern Syria, with its capture of two enormous enclaves near the Turkish border, one east of the Euphrates and the other west of the river.
However, this pushed Turkey to invade and further widened the split between the two NATO allies—the United States and Turkey.
What's Erdoğan afraid of?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan considers the Syrian Kurdish moves a direct strategic threat to his country's national security, mostly born of the fear that a country—or even Kurdish autonomy—in northern Syria will serve as a model and basis for the demands of the considerable Kurdish minority in southern Turkey.
That aside, the Turks well remember the tight, years' long cooperation between the Syrian Kurdish YPG and the Turkish Kurdish PKK. On numerous occasions, PKK combatants left for terror attacks on Turkish soil from territory owned by Syrian Kurds and returned to same when Turkish security forces closed in on them.
The regime of Bashar Assad's father and predecessor Hafez Assad turned a blind eye to this cross-border collaboration and, at times, even supported it, causing Turkey and Syria to reach the brink of war 20 years ago.
The Turkish streets, as well as the Ankara political opposition, well remember that. Erdoğan has thus been afforded wall-to-wall support when he flagrantly flaunted warnings from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and sent the Turkish army, along with Free Syrian Army Sunni Syrian rebels groups loyal to him, to invade the Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria.
The invasion's main goal was to prevent the creation of an independent Syrian-Kurdish political entity on the Turkey-Syrian border (in addition to the Iraqi Kurd autonomous region near the Turkey-Iraq border). Another goal was to institutionalize a "buffer zone" ensuring the safety of southern Turkey residents from hostile forces and terror groups (such as Islamic State) that may attempt to carry out attacks against them from within the failed Syrian state.
The Syrian Kurds' response to the invasion was also almost academic. They contacted Bashar Assad and invited forces loyal to him to enter Afrin in the enclave's center to prevent the Turks and their allies from overtaking it.
While the Syrian Kurds have their own score to settle with the Assad family—which never recognized them as citizens with equal rights, neglected them and even slaughtered them on occasion—the Turks are much worse than the Alawites, who after all are themselves a minority in need of support from other minority groups such as Christians, Druze and, yes, Kurds as well.
PM Netanyahu obliged to rethink matters
It's arguable whether the Turkish invasion of Syria is justified and whether it does not infringe on the norms of international law. What is clear, however, is that Erdoğan has taken such a drastic move to begin with because Ankara is genuinely fearful of the political and military settlement put together at the end of the Syrian civil war posing a real, strategic threat to Turkey's national security.
Israel's lots are not drastically different from Turkey's in that regard. Jerusalem also fears—and rightfully so—that the coming days will set in stone facts on the ground in Syria that will adversely impact Israel's national security and the safety of its people.
This isn't to say that the IDF should invade the Syrian Golan Heights and the Damascus Basin to prevent entrenchment of Iran-affiliated militias and creation of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps missile bases (similarly to action undertaken by the Turkish army in its Operation Olive Branch underway against the Kurds in northwestern Syria).
The new situation forming in Syria and the international arena, however, necessitates the prime minister and Israel's security chiefs to rethink—strategically and tactically, politically and militarily—the means and operating methods needed to prevent Syria becoming an Iranian puppet and launch pad for precision-targeted missiles and armed Shiite commando corps' incursions into Israel.
Moreover, Iranian entrenchment in Syria will significantly increase the threat posed by Lebanon and also create a serious threat to aerial and maritime traffic both to and from Israel and its offshore gas rigs. In other words, the country's economic well-being and energy independence are at stake here.
Qasem Soleimani's entrenchment plan
An article published by the New York Times last week dealt with the entrenchment of foreign actors in Syria. A later Fox News report included a map showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and Shiite militias (some 20,000 Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani forces operating with direct Iranian funding and oversight) hold several dozen bases around Syria already.
The bases aren't large, and most of them are far from the Golan Heights and are mostly used for incursions, intelligence collection and logistics in the fight against what rebel groups are still combating Assad's regime.
If Commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force Qasem Soleimani had his way, however, Iranians will expand these "installations" to real air, land, sea and intelligence bases.
Soleimani also intends for the bases to be close enough to the Israeli border to enable forces to reach the Golan Heights boundary within a single night in order to steal across it and raid Israeli communities.
That won't be happening tomorrow, nor will it happen all at once. The Iranians have a list of priorities as to what they wish to achieve in Syria. First, they wish for their client, Bashar Assad, to regain the maximal amount of land and stabilize his rule using Iranian and Russian help. The Iranians—together with Hezbollah, other Shiite militias and what's left of the Syrian army—give Russians the "boots on the ground" needed to expand the territory the regime is attempting to retake.
Doing so enables Soleimani to break ground on an open land corridor from Tehran to Beirut through Iraq and Syria, which will enable Iran to become a strategic-military force to be reckoned with in the eastern Mediterranean, to expand the northern front against Israel and to move military assistance to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza through the sea.
This land corridor in effect already exists, but has several bottlenecks on the Iraqi-Syrian border, which the Americans and their Kurdish allies could snap shut at any moment.
Moscow, Tehran chasing money
The economy is at the very top of Iran's priorities at the moment. Tehran has invested some $15 billion in Assad's regime, its army and the fundamental needs of its people (such as fuel) throughout the civil war. The Iranian regime is eager to see a return on its investment, pressured as it is by public opinion.
To that end, Tehran is demanding Assad provide licenses to extract oil, gas and phosphates from the rich fields of the Euphrates Valley and eastern Syrian deserts, for the benefit of Iranian economic companies—most of which are either tied to the Revolutionary Guard or outright owned by them.
They are also demanding a portion of the port of Tartus, to export what they produce in the war-torn country, while also gaining a strategic naval foothold.
Assad's no sucker, though, and has only massive debts in his state coffers. He also has a family that has gotten used to making a nice living and accruing vast sums of money in Swiss bank accounts at the expense of the Syrian man on the street and the country's modest natural resources.
The Syrian president is therefore loath to give the Iranians what they're asking, not least of which because Russia's President Vladimir Putin is also demanding his cut of the shriveling pie.
The Kremlin knows full well no entity exists willing to foot the bill for the hundreds of billions required to restore Syria from its current ruins, and Russia therefore understands to look elsewhere for Russian economy's salvation.
Nevertheless, Putin wishes to cover the expenses of his country's military involvement in Syria and is therefore demanding licenses for prospecting for oil and phosphates.
This is in addition to the naval and air bases Russia was awarded in the Mediterranean's basin. Assad knows well he can haggle with the Iranians, but that he shouldn't even try with Putin.
IDF operating, but it isn't enough
Putin isn't the only one attempting to shape the Syrian "day after", however, with the Iranians, Assad's regime, Kurds and Turks all entering the fray. The Americans are also there, acting covertly to prevent Islamic State from returning to the land it has lost and to prevent the Iranian land corridor from forming.
The Pentagon is planning to create a coed force of 30,000 Kurdish Syrian combatants to that end, set to operate as a "border police" in northeastern Syria and on the border with Iraq. That's at the top of the American defense establishment's priorities list.
Generally speaking, it may be said that all of the entities involved in stirring the Syrian pot are smelling an impending political settlement and moving to promote their own political and economic agendas through same. Who's looking after Israel's interests, you may ask? Mostly the IDF, assisted by diplomatic lobbying by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Presidents Putin and Trump.
The IDF is operating on two channels: using covert inter-war operations it chips away at Iranian entrenchment in Syria and Hezbollah's acquisition of quality weapons. It may also be assumed that humanitarian assistance to "local entities" in the Syrian Golan Heights, the Druze included, has produced several strategic benefits in intelligence and routine border security.
Netanyahu's lobbying at the Kremlin, meanwhile, ensures Russian forces on Syrian soil stay out of those inter-war operations and that Putin declines to provide the Syrians and Iranians alike with weapons curtailing the Israel Air Force's freedom of operation.
Both the Russians and Israel are operating according to the same guiding principle, which says that each side makes sure to not harm the other party's vital interests.
As for the future, it appears pressures Assad has been exerting on the Syrians have narrowed down the Kremlin's willingness to turn a blind eye to IDF preventative operations.
The White House, for its part, doesn't even grant Israel that benefit, instead allowing the Russians to administer both all of the military moves and ceasefires and lead political settlement efforts.
As a result, Israel is not only absent from the political arena but also lacks a serious diplomatic leverage over future negotiations. Netanyahu's lobbying in Moscow and inter-war operations, when it comes down to it, will fail to prevent the grievous harm that may come to our vital interests in the north if Iran is able to entrench itself there.
The conclusion is that Israel needs to bang on the desk in Washington and demand President Trump get his country heavily involved—both diplomatically and possibly militarily—in goings-on all across Syria and not merely east of the Euphrates.
Doing so will also serve Jordan's strategic interests as well as those of other countries in the pro-Western Sunni Arab camp. Abandoning the Syrian arena to the Russians, however, will eventually allow the Iranians to reach their own strategic goals.
With all due respect, but the ceremonial opening of another bureau for the American ambassador to Israel in Jerusalem will do nothing to promote Israel's existential strategic interests by even one millimeter. If Trump is a true friend of Israel, as he claims, he must prove it in Syria. And he must prove it now.