Monday, August 7, 2017

Syria: Iran's prey - Prof. Eyal Zisser

by Prof. Eyal Zisser

After all, it wasn't the Russian planes or the Russian military police units deployed in Syria that determined the outcome -- it was the Iranians and their allies, Shiite volunteers and Hezbollah fighters.

This weekend, the voice of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah rang out from Beirut in celebration of another achievement. This time, the achievement pertains to the battle for control over Lebanon's border with Syria, where Hezbollah has been fighting the Nusra Front and Islamic State. In recent years, the Nusra Front and Islamic State had entrenched themselves in the border area, around the town of Arsal, launching terrorist attacks and assaults from there on Hezbollah and Lebanese army targets in Lebanon.

The Hezbollah offensive -- in which the now U.S.-supported Lebanese army served as an onlooker -- went well. When it was over, the Nusra Front agreed to decamp to Syria, leaving a few lone ISIS operatives to fight a battle they never had a chance of winning. On the heels of the military victory came an ethnic cleansing of the area, with Hezbollah forcing Syrian refugees who were sheltering there to go back to Syria. The Syrians were posing a threat to Lebanon's delicate Sunni-Shiite demographic balance. 

But Hezbollah's limited achievement, which the organization's spokespeople are puffing up as a divine victory and the first step toward a Hezbollah takeover of the Galilee, is not a product of Hezbollah's abilities or might, but rather a change in the strategic map of Syria. 

A cautious look at what is happening in Syria reveals that the seven-year-long war, the same civil and jihadist war that has destroyed much of the country, is approaching its end. Of course, we must be careful with predictions, given the endless list of assessments forecasting the imminent and inevitable downfall of Syrian President Bashar Assad, all of which turned out to be wrong. But nevertheless, the direction in the past few months has been clear. These days the fighting is winding down thanks to the cease-fire deals brokered by Moscow and implemented throughout the country, including in southern Syria, around the city of Daraa and along the Israeli-Syrian border on the Golan Heights. 

Thanks to Russia's military might, but also to the weakness of the rebel allies, the Russians have successfully quelled the revolt against Assad. U.S. President Donald Trump's decision last month to discontinue the assistance the CIA provided the Syrian rebels completed the picture. Trump claims, rightly, that the American administration had wasted the money, having seen no results. In many instances the aid reached the wrong hands, or even ended up with groups that would change alliances and join up with ISIS or the Nusra Front. But Trump's decision sent a clear message: Washington is turning its back on the Syrian rebels, a process of disengagement that will be completed when it is soon announced that the Islamic State has been defeated (even if the group stays active in the depth of the desert, threatening to break out again in the future). 

So Russia is the big winner in the Syrian civil war. Its military forces are deployed throughout the country, even in the south, near the border with Israel and Jordan. Surprisingly, Russian soldiers are often welcomed by the residents of the very villages that, until recently, were being bombed to pieces by Russian planes. The locals in the Middle East value power, and know what they need to do to survive in the impossible reality of our region. 

But the Russians wouldn't have gotten as far as they have without Iran, which is still a vital partner in Moscow's attempt to preserve the fragile calm in Syria. After all, it wasn't the Russian planes or the Russian military police units deployed in Syria that determined the outcome -- it was the Iranians and their allies, Shiite volunteers and Hezbollah fighters. Iran won't let its prey slip out of its hands any time soon, and it has the patience to wait until the time is right to cash its chips. In the meantime, Tehran is tightening its grip on the same areas that Russia has freed up for it. It's a profitable deal: rather than positions along the border with Israel, the Iranians will get a port on the Syrian coast and an entire military setup from Damascus to the Iraqi border. 

The reality in Syria and Lebanon has changed, and Israel, too, had better prepare for what comes next.

Prof. Eyal Zisser


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