In a vivid display of the political inspiration of his regime and the scope of his ambitions, the late Syrian dictator Hafez Assad decorated the waiting area of his presidential chamber with a colourful painting of the battle of the “Horns of Hittin” – Saladin’s decisive confrontation with the Crusaders in 1187.
That showdown in the Lower Galilee, outside what now is Kibbutz Lavi, was the turning point that later resulted in the Crusaders’ eviction from the Holy Land, and in Saladin’s domination of the Fertile Crescent. It was a singular feat the elder Assad hoped to emulate.
Seventeen years after his death, and in the wake of more than six years of civil war over his political estate, his quest for what is known as “Greater Syria” appears doomed.
The senior Assad’s thesis – that modern Syria was a victim of new Crusaders, and that Israel, Lebanon, much of Jordan and also parts of Iraq and Turkey should rightfully belong to Syria – today lies buried under the ruins of his Smaller Syria.
If anything, it is Assad’s son and successor, Bashar, who is now accused by other Arabs of ceding Arab lands to Christian foreigners. He is also the enemy of Saladin’s ethnic kin, the Kurds.
Yet on the other hand, what until two years ago seemed like the younger Assad’s imminent collapse has now given way to his apparent victory. While this development has its positive elements, especially in terms of ending the terrible bloodshed in Syria, from Israel’s viewpoint it is alarming.
Postwar Syria will not itself be a direct threat to its neighbours, other than in its role as a potential supplier of yet more unwanted migrants to Turkey, and through it to Europe.
With an estimated 500,000 Syrians killed and nearly half of the pre-war population displaced, Syria will be busy reconstructing for years – beginning in Aleppo, the metropolis that was once the country’s commercial heart and now is largely in ruins.
Moreover, pre-war Syria will not be fully reassembled any time soon. The effective secession of the Kurdish northeast will be difficult to undo, the pro-Turkish forces occupying parts of the northwest will likely be slow to retreat, and Syria’s bloodied Sunni majority will be difficult to appease. Assad will be kept very busy with daily surveillance and policing of millions of vengeful citizens while also being expected to somehow feed, house and employ them.
Israel, like the rest of the West, also appreciates the fact that Assad’s victory is bad news for his country’s assorted Islamist groups, of which ISIS is only the best known.
Even so, Assad’s survival of the civil war has created a new and mostly ominous configuration. The threat to Israel lies in Assad’s allies.
Assad won his war, by far the bloodiest in modern Middle Eastern history, thanks to three foreign allies: Iran, Russia and Lebanon’s Shi’ites.
The war was decided by the Russian air force after it built a large airbase south of Aleppo and started bombing Assad’s enemies in autumn of 2015. It was the same strategy Generalísimo Franco adopted during the Spanish Civil War when he unleashed the German Luftwaffe on cities like Guernica.
Similarly, much the way Franco deployed fascist Italy’s army on the ground, Assad deployed Hezbollah foot soldiers and officers and advisers from its Iranian patron.
Assad’s indebtedness to these allies is such that he is in no position to frustrate their expectations of him. Prominent among these expectations is the Iranian quest to stretch an overland route from Teheran to Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
This alone is a strategic threat from Israel’s viewpoint. An Iranian maritime foothold at Lebanon’s doorstep, less than 200 kilometres from northern Israel, is intolerable from the viewpoint of the IDF.
Worse, Israel’s intelligence agencies believe Iran wants to control southern Syria, and let Hezbollah use it in order to harass Israel from its Syrian flank, the way Hezbollah has done over the years from Israel’s Lebanese flank.
The only good news in this regard is that there is no equivalent Russian design in Syria.
What Russia wanted in this theatre was to restore the imperial sway in the Middle East it felt it had lost when NATO bombed Libya and effectively unseated Muammar Gaddafi, Moscow’s former client. Russia’s strategy for achieving this goal was to save Assad’s regime; consolidate the Russian navy’s long-standing presence in the Syrian port of Tartus; and fortify it with a permanent aerial presence in Syria.
These goals have all been realised. Now Russia’s interest is that the war end, so it can send home some of its troops and reduce the risk of guerrilla attacks from the survivors of its aerial raids.
In fact, Assad cannot fully please both his Russian and Iranian benefactors. Any bases Teheran is allowed to construct on the narrow Syrian coast would have to be reasonably close to the aerial and naval bases Russia maintains in the area. From Russia’s point of view, that would be an intrusion.
Aware of this tension, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu voiced his concern about Iran’s designs in a series of meetings with Vladimir Putin, the latest of which took place in August in Sochi. Russia apparently shares Israel’s concern on this point, and for now there are no signs that Iran’s hopes to build a Syrian port are materialising.
Russia’s respect for Israel’s agenda was also reflected in its inaction in the face of a Sept. 7 aerial attack attributed to the Israel Air Force on a military factory near the city of Hamma, close to the Russian air base in Khmeimim. Russia is believed to have been informed in advance of the attack that reportedly targeted missiles or chemical weapons Assad intended to supply to Hezbollah.
However, southern Syria is another matter.
In that area Russia apparently feels less challenged by Iran, and reportedly rejected an Israeli request to ask Teheran to stay at least 60 kilometres east of the Israeli border. Russia, according to Haaretz, only agreed to ensure that Iranian and Hezbollah units would not come any closer to Israel than five kilometres from the prospective armistice lines between President Bashar Assad’s regime and the rebels. Since the Assad regime controls parts of the Golan border, in practice this means only that the Iranians would not be directly along the border, but could be within five kilometres of it. Such a formula is a nonstarter from Israel’s point of view.
Israel is therefore preparing to respond militarily should Iran or Hezbollah try to set up bases east of the Golan. Messages in this spirit were conveyed to the US by Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad spy agency, during meetings in Washington in August.
The Israeli principle of distancing Iran and Hezbollah from its northeastern border was already made plain in winter 2015, when Iranian General Mohammed Allahdadi was killed by an airstrike, along with 11 others including senior Hezbollah commander Jihad Mughniyeh, while touring the Syrian side of the Golan.
Israel did not claim responsibility for the airstrike, but pretty much everyone agrees no one else could have launched the attack – which was carried out with great precision and obviously served Israeli interests.
The same political principle and military resolve were displayed on Sept. 19, albeit less lethally, when an Israeli Patriot missile fired from the Galilee intercepted an Iranian-built drone that took off from Damascus International Airport, and was shot down seconds before it would have entered Israel’s airspace.
The IDF said it detected and followed the drone from the moment of its takeoff.
Hours after this incident, Binyamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly that “from Teheran to Tartus, an Iranian curtain is descending across the Middle East,” and then vowed “to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria” and “producing deadly weapons in Syria or in Lebanon for use against us,” and from “opening new terror fronts against Israel along our northern border.”
Israel’s ray of light in the unfolding situation is, paradoxically, the Arab world.
Assad’s conduct during the war in which he killed and displaced more Arabs than anyone else in modern times, and his effective ceding of Arab land to Russian tutelage – are an internal Arab tragedy that Israel cannot affect. However, his alliance with, and service of, Iran, are threatening to Sunni Arabs in much the same way they are to the Jewish state.
The Iranian penetration into four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a – is intolerable from the viewpoint of most Arab governments, particularly Saudi Arabia, which fears Iran’s ultimate aim is to someday cross the Persian Gulf and wrest control of Mecca.
More immediately, Iran’s gains in Syria are alarming Jordan, which fears that Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias will stir trouble along the kingdom’s 330-km border with Syria.
As Israel fights Iran’s territorial encroachment, nuclear designs, and terrorist plots, cooperation between the Jewish state and the Sunni Arabs is believed to be intensifying, even if it is done under the radar. The Middle East is closing ranks in the face of a religiously-fuelled invader and Arab leaders for whom this threat from the east is reminiscent of the threat from the west that the Crusaders posed to Saladin.