In the aftermath of the so-called Islamic State’s (IS) defeat, Israel is feeling encircled, anxious and insecure as Iran’s sphere of influence has tremendously increased not just in Syria but the entire the Middle East.
During the last Munich Security Conference, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu showed a map to convince the audience how Iran is expanding its sphere of influence in the entire Middle East and filling in the vacuum left by the IS. He claimed the IS’ remnants would be completely wiped out very soon and Iran would fill in the void left, which according to him, is unwelcomed by Israel.
Israel believes Tehran wants to establish munitions-factories and expand its military presence in Syria to open up, from Golan Heights, a new front against it. Israel also blames Iran for supplying Hezbollah with precision-guided missiles. Iran, on the other hand, rejects these claims saying its presence in Syria is limited to military advisors only.
Israel shot down a drone last month in its territory and claimed that it was an Iranian copy of a US craft captured by Iran in 2011 and reversed engineered. Iran has described the Israeli claim as “ridiculous.”During the strikes, one of Israel’s F-16 fighter jets was shot down, believed to be the first loss of an Israeli plane in combat since 1982.
Israel has been striking deep inside Syria with impunity during the last few years but went unengaged; most probably, as Bashar al-Assad and his allies deliberately evaded a direct confrontation. Syria’s downing of an Israeli fighter jet has somewhat dented Israeli image of military supremacy and indicates the balance of power has been shifted in favour of Iran and its allies.
After the defeat of the IS in Iraq and Syria, Iran has been able to create a land-corridor to Iraq, Syria and all the way to Lebanon creating anxiety among its Arab neighbours and Israel. The new development has brought the Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Israel closer as informal covert connections between them are now being discussed publically. Netanyahu admitted this during the Munich Security Conference saying, “Israel and the Arabs have come ‘closer together as never before’ and ‘… it (Iranian push in the ME) paved the way for a broader peace and ultimately also for Palestinians-Israeli peace’.”
According to London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, the Trump administration is working on a peace plan that may include the US and international recognition of a Palestinian state and the acceptance of East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel wanted to unite Arabs against Iran and seems ready to give some concessions to the Arabs to tackle Iran. During Munich Security Conference, Netanyahu said the Arabs and Israel are realigning, and the Arabs have realised that Israel is no more their enemy but an indispensable friend in fighting militant Islam. Iran has once again offered the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to form a Dialogue Forum to discuss regional security issues that could later result in a non-intervention treaty among the regional countries.
Israel has defined its ‘red lines’ in Syria: Iran’s permanent military presence, the building of missile factories, establishing a new military front near the Golan Heights or supplying precision-guided missile to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel, during the Syrian civil war, has directly hit Iran and Hezbollah more than two dozen times alleging them of crossing its red lines. Israel wasn’t engaged in the past, but the downing of its F-16 shows the changed ground realities in Syria.
Just recently, Israeli Ground Forces commander Maj. Gen. Kobi Barak said the chance for war has increased in 2018. From destroying the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, to direct attacks against Syria in recent past, the history suggests Israel could pre-empt a military strike to remove a perceived security threat.
But Israel could pay a hefty price of a full-scale escalation and confrontation with Iran. Syria and Iran could attack Israel from its northeast, while Hamas could attack Israel from the west with rockets provided by Iran. Battle-hardened Hezbollah equipped with precision-guided missiles and stronger arsenal could engage Israel from the north. Iran also has the support of the Popular Mobilisation Forces — Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organisation composed of some 40 militias that defeated the IS in Iraq. Iran, Hezbollah and their regional allies have threatened the next war will be fought deep inside Israel with thousands of fighters all around the Muslim world.
During the Munich Security Conference, Netanyahu said the Arabs have realised that Israel is no longer their enemy but an indispensable friend in fighting terrorism
Israel, on the other hand, would have the support of the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and many other Arab and western countries. With Russia already present in Syria, any future confrontation involving the US could result in a direct US-Russia military confrontation. So, any future confrontation in the Middle East could escalate to a major world conflict involving many heavyweights and would bring catastrophe to the world.
Russia’s role is extremely vital as it acts as a balancer to maintain the balance of power in the Middle East. It has allied with Iran and Syria to support Assad regime to farther its interests simultaneously keeping a very cordial relationship with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia on January 29 specifically to ask Russia to use its influence over Tehran to stop it building its military basis in Syria and transfer of missiles to Hezbollah. Russia would want to pursue its national interest in Syria without undermining Israeli interests. In the aftermath of recent Israeli airstrikes in Syria, Russia ‘urged all parties involved to exercise restraint and to avoid any actions that could lead to an even greater complication of the situation.’
A full-scale direct confrontation between Iran and Israel will be catastrophic for both the countries and to the region at large. Therefore, sanity should prevail, and the situation mustn’t be escalated to the point of no return.
The writer is a journalist & analyst based in Islamabad. He tweets at @kashifaliraza & can be reached at email@example.com
Published in Daily Times, March 7th 2018.