Wars do not always start when they seem to be inevitable, but in many cases they do. We are now in the countdown to the next Middle East war-the second Iranian-Israeli war. Second? Yes, because the first being the war of summer 2006 between Israel and Hizballah, and in actual terms it was between Israel and a wing of the Iranian armed forces, which is what Hizballah is. Since then a lot has happened in the Middle East, and the Syrian civil war being a key development. One of the most significant results of this war is the overwhelming Iranian influence in Syria. In actual terms, the once proud Syrian Ba’th Pan-Arab regime has become a stooge of the emerging Shi’ite Iranian empire. This is why a future war between Israel and Syria can and will very easily and quickly become the second Iranian-Israeli war. Here is what is happening, and why and how it is fast deteriorating towards a big conflict, one whose potential repercussions could be decisive to the entire region.
It is a long-standing Israeli policy to prevent Iran and its subordinates from taking Syria over completely, turning its territory into another front against Israel. In this case, Israeli rhetoric coming mainly from PM Netanyahu has been fully matched by actions, which is not always what happens with the PM’s rhetoric. Israel launched many successful aerial attacks against depots of weapons considered as strategic which were supposed to be delivered to Hizballah, and the attacks were in the Damascus area, as well as in other areas of Syria. For a long while, the Assad regime swallowed its pride and refrained from any direct response, despite the ritual cry about the violation of Syrian sovereignty and ‘’the possible severe repercussions of the Israeli actions’’, but that changed and with it changed also the posture of the Israeli reaction and rhetoric. A few weeks ago, the Israeli Air Force destroyed an Iranian missile project and a chemical facility in central Syria in a daring and precise attack, which should have indicated to the Iranians and Assad how vulnerable they are. The message though was lost on them, and few days ago another message was sent. An outdated S-5 Syrian air defense battery was destroyed by the Israelis after firing at an Israeli reconnaissance flight in Lebanon, aimed at monitoring potential delivery of arms to Hizballah. Tension has arose since then, and the Syrian rhetoric intensified, but more importantly, the Iranians came to the picture in a big way. Their Chief of Staff, General Muhammad Bagheri is in Damascus in an hastily arranged visit and there he issued a specific warning to Israel, to not infringe upon Syrian sovereignty any more. No Israeli verbal response, but a response will come and soon, and it will be more Israeli aerial attacks on any attempt by the Iranians, Syria and Hizballah to transfer missiles to Lebanon, or to engage in activity against Israeli reconnaissance flights. In that case, it will be left to the Iranians to make good on their rhetoric and the stakes are clearly very high. All this should be seen also against the background of the big powers game in and over Syria and with regard to Iran.
Regarding the latter, it is ,of course, the US game and its implications. The Trump administration is escalating the war of words against Iran, and the question is, and it is being asked in Jerusalem and Riyadh as much as in Tehran, what and where is the beef? Trump is fast becoming less believable also among the US greatest allies, as his rhetoric usually is not matched by actions. The latest American move in Iraq, the tacit support for the Iranian-Iraqi takeover of Kirkuk dramatically highlights the doubts about US Iranian policy. Why supporting an Iranian move in Iraq while referring to the dangers of Iranian aggression in the Middle East? Supreme leader Khamenei stated, that he would not waste time on Trump’s latest Iran speech. He does not need to, because his cronies did not really waste their time and led the assault on the Kurds ending, for the time being, with a major success. All this is relevant to our subject, for the simple reason, that the Israeli government will wish to know the American position, before launching any irreversible move against the Iranians in Syria, which easily and quickly will include Lebanon and could engage missile and aerial attacks or attempts at, by Israel and Iran against each other’s territory. Until now, the Americans never publicly criticized Israeli aerial attacks in Syria, but what is said behind closed doors is another matter, especially if deterioration in Syria will lead to a full-fledged war in a country where there is another important actor, Russia.
Yesterday it was an unusual day in the Israeli -Russian relations. The high command of the Russian army led by the Defense Minister visited their Israeli counterparts and discussed exactly the issues analyzed here. While the public posture was one of friendship, with the Israelis bending over backwards to show smiling face to their guests and vice versa, it is not clear what and if, was agreed behind closed doors. There are signals, that the Israelis are very happy. Officially Putin is a friend of Iran, though it is not clear, whether it will not be his interest to see the Iranian wings somewhat clipped in Syria. If that happens as a result of Iranian continuing provocations in Syria and the inevitable Israeli reaction, Russia can still maintain its dominant position in Syria, and also be able to play the diplomatic card of mediating. After all, Putin maneuvered himself to be the one actor who talks to all the others involved, not the US.
Altogether, we are getting very close to what can be a devastating confrontation , and while there may be checks and balances along the road, there are also deep hatreds, suspicions and mistrusts. In the Middle East, and not only there, this is a recipe for huge troubles.