For Netanyahu and other Israeli officials the chief concern was never the black clad death cult which filmed itself beheading Americans and burning people alive.
“Let the Sunni evil prevail,” they say.
Israel is threatening to escalate military action in Syria against perceived Iranian interests. This week Netanyahu declared, “we will act when necessary according to our red lines” while hinting he prefers ISIS presence in Syria as opposed to Iran aligned fighters at his border. This comes as ISIS is now crumbling, and at a time when most world leaders of nations driving the external proxy war in Syria have toned down their rhetoric regarding the future fate of the Assad government.
After years of a regular drumbeat of bellicose statements emanating from the West and repeat talk of “Assad must go”, “red lines”, and years of constantly failed predictions that “regime demise is imminent,” there now seems a general acceptance that the Syrian government has emerged victorious in the 6-year long conflict. Not only did Trump this summer order the closure of the CIA’s regime change program which targeted Assad, but it appears even Gulf nations – lately embroiled in their own inter-GCC political civil war and airing of dirty laundry – have been forced to temper their rhetoric.
Turkey also has reluctantly shifted its priorities in Syria after its well-known and documented regime change machinations – which included facilitating the transfer of tens of thousands of foreign jihadists (the core of which joined ISIS) across its southern border – have largely backfired. International media too, generally reflecting undeniable geopolitical realities, have bluntly headlined stories with “And the winner is: Assad” and “We have to accept that Assad will win in Syria” and “How Assad is Winning.”
But it appears Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t get the memo. On Wednesday the Israeli Prime Minister told Russian President Putin that Israel would not tolerate an Iranian presence in Syria and further signaled willingness to go to war in Syria to curtail Iranian influence. “Iran is already well on its way to controlling Iraq, Yemen and to a large extent is already in practice in control of Lebanon,” Netanyahu told Putin, adding further that, “We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel. Israel opposes Iran’s continued entrenchment in Syria. We will be sure to defend ourselves with all means against this and any threat.”
The two leaders met for three hours in the Black Sea resort of Sochi – their sixth such meeting since September 2015. Putin did not respond publicly to the provocative words on Syria during the portion of the meeting open to reporters. Netanyahu later told Israeli reporters covering the meeting that:
Bringing Shi’ites into the Sunni sphere will surely have many serious implications both in regard to refugees and to new terrorist acts. We want to prevent a war and that’s why it’s better to raise the alarm early in order to stop deterioration.
Netanyahu’s reference to “the Sunni sphere” came after he summarized the closed door part of the discussion as dealing with “Iran’s attempt to establish a foothold in Syria in the places where ISIS was defeated and is leaving.” Netanyahu’s comments are a reflection of an extremely disturbing view which has become so prominent within Israeli defense circles as to be considered establishment: that ISIS is ultimately preferable to Iran and Assad. This is to say that continued ISIS presence in Syria and Iraq is a viable option and possibly better than pro-Iranian or even Russian spheres of influence in the Israeli prime minister’s mind. Of course, this “lesser evil is ISIS” view is nothing new. In Israel, for example, there are even “respected” think tanks tied in with major public universities which openly call for allowing ISIS to thrive in Syria.
The Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, for example, which is one of Israel’s most internationally visible and influential think tanks (and located on the campus of Israel’s second largest university), published a policy paper last year which made a direct appeal to Israel’s Western partners with the unambiguous message contained in the essay’s title: “The Destruction of Islamic State is a Strategic Mistake.” Author and Director of the Begin-Sadat Centre, Efraim Inbar, argued against a Western military campaign to destroy ISIS while envisioning the group as an effective tool in sowing terror and chaos in Iran and Syria, with the added benefit of keeping Russia bogged down in defense of the Assad government. Inbar spelled this out clearly:
The continuing existence of IS [Islamic State] serves a strategic purpose. The American administration does not appear capable of recognizing the fact that IS can be a useful tool in undermining Tehran’s ambitious plan for domination of the Middle East.
While acknowledging the Islamic State’s utter genocidal brutality, the paper concluded:
The Western distaste for IS brutality and immorality should not obfuscate strategic clarity.
Various current and former Israeli defense officials have echoed this point of view over the years, including former Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren, who in 2014 surprised the audience at Colorado’s Aspen Ideas Festival when he said in comments related to ISIS that, “the lesser evil is the Sunnis over the Shias.” Oren, while articulating Israeli defense policy, fully acknowledged he thought ISIS was “the lesser evil”. Likewise, for Netanyahu and other Israeli officials the chief concern was never the black clad death cult which filmed itself beheading Americans and burning people alive, but the possibility of, in the words of Henry Kissinger, “a Shia and pro-Iran territorial belt reaching from Tehran to Beirut” and establishment of “an Iranian radical empire.”
Of course, such a perspective also tends to assume that Syrian and Iraqi sovereignty is non-existent (but instead seen as a mere extension of Iran and Russia), even as both countries now stand in better position in terms of operational sovereignty with Syria having liberated Aleppo and Iraq having regained Mosul. And that’s perhaps why there’s increasingly uninhibited truth-telling in Israel, the Gulf, and D.C. these days: the party is over in terms of the hoped for regime change in Syria. Perhaps now there’s simply more blunt and open talk wherein assumptions are laid bare as introspective strategists realign their talking points while still eyeing the ultimate neocon prize of regime change in Iran.
Though still rarely acknowledged in international reports, Israel has engaged in overt acts of war in Syria since at least 2012 and 2013, when it launched a massive missile attack against a Syrian defense technology facility in Jamraya outside of Damascus. In 2016 Israel went so far as to target Damascus International Airport, killing a well-known Hezbollah commander. In a significant admission last week, the head of Israel’s air force acknowledged nearly one hundred IDF attacks on convoys inside Syria over the course of the past 5 years. Earlier this summer Netanyahu himself was caught on a hot mic bragging that Israel had struck Syrian targets at least “a dozen times”. And this is to say nothing of Israel’s covert support to al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria’s south, which has reportedly involved weapons transfers and treatment of wounded jihadists in Israeli hospitals, the latter which was widely promoted in photo ops involving Netanyahu himself. As even former Acting Director of the CIA Michael Morell once directly told the Israeli public, Israel’s “dangerous game” in Syria consists in getting in bed with al-Qaeda in order to fight Shia Iran.
Perhaps the biggest blow to Israeli plans for rolling back Iranian presence in Syria came mid-summer of this year, when Trump agreed to a southwest Syria ‘de-escalation zone’ with Russia, which would necessarily involve Iranian cooperation. The agreement implicitly acknowledges Iran’s troop presence in Syria as legitimate, and as reported at the time further “ignored Israel’s positions almost completely.” But analysts are in general agreement that the US-Russia brokered deal has been relatively successful and a step in the right direction. Even the Reuters report on this week’s Netanyahu-Putin meeting seemed to acknowledge the deal’s effectiveness:
Russia has so far shown forbearance toward Israel, setting up a military hotline to prevent their warplanes or anti-aircraft units clashing accidentally over Syria.
But given that Israel has already invested itself so heavily in the push to remove Assad while routinely launching attacks on Hezbollah with impunity, it is unlikely to disengage from Syria anytime soon, even as close Western allies publicly change their tune. Netanyahu’s brazen words to Putin that ‘preventative’ escalation in Syria to destroy what Israeli defense officials commonly call the “Iranian land bridge” (or the so-called ‘Shia crescent’) may in reality be empty diplomatic posturing, yet it does reveal increased Israeli desperation as even the West is seeming to ignore Netanyahu’s repeatedly declared “red lines”.
Regardless, Netanyahu remains the Syria regime change lobby’s best hope. Already, within less than 24 hours of Netanyahu’s Russia visit, neocon columnists are calling for him to unilaterally “take action”:
If he really expects others , especially Putin, that he means business this time, he will have to go beyond words and into actions, as clearly Israel could not and should not allow Iran to turn South Syria into another South Lebanon.
With ISIS folding, refugees returning to their homes, stability taking root over large swathes of Syria, and successful de-escalation zones holding over parts of the country, it appears that only Netanyahu (along with terror groups like ISIS) is left unhappy in the region. Yet Syria continues on its current hopeful trajectory and path to recovery.