Iran a Sharp Wedge between Russia and US-Israel Alliance
Iran is turning from ally to impediment in Russia’s quest for understandings on Syria’s post-war Syria with the US – and to a limited extent with Israel (as DEBKA Weekly 802 noted in last week’s article: Quiet Russian-US Consensus to Evict Iran from Syria.”)
In this regard, Israel’s defense minister Avigdor Lieberman was invited to Moscow to confer with his Russian counterpart Gen. Sergei Shoigu at the end of the week. Disagreements were intended to be nipped in the bud before they sprouted out of control, after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu snapped back at a view pitched by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
On Monday, May 28, Lavrov said: “It should only be the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic that stand on the Syrian border with Israel.” But then he added, “Of course, the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces must be carried out on a reciprocal basis. However, it must be a two-way street.” He went on to explain: “We are witnessing an increasing number of armed groups appearing in this region, including the Rukba refugee camp which, according to our information, is related in one way or another to Daesh and other extremist structures. The military presence there has no sense from a military point of view.”
The Rukba refugee is in fact located about 11 miles south of the American al-Tanf outpost at the heart of the 34-mile US-controlled zone that lies across the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border intersection. It is there that the US trains and equips armed Syrian opposition forces and sends them to fight in eastern and southern Syria. Lavrov’s mention of “Daesh” referred to those US-backed forces, so making the US withdrawal from the Al Tanf outpost an integral element of Moscow’s prescription for a two-way street for removing non-Syrian forces from the Israeli border.
And anyway, the Russia minister argued, holding Al-Tanf does not make much military sense. For Washington, it is Lavrov’s argument that makes no sense. From Al Tanf, the US has good oversight of northern Jordan, western Iraq and eastern Syria. Therefore, the Trump administration will be sure it remains in American hands; even if the US withdraws from Syria at large, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will want to hold on to this high-value outpost.
Washington did not respond to Lavrov’s comments. Netanyahu, who is in full sync with the Iran strategy developed by Donald Trump and secretary of state Mike Pompeo, challenged him instantly. He stressed that the Iranian military has no place anywhere on Syrian soil, not just on the Israeli border. His subtext was clear: If the Iranians don’t remove themselves from Syria, they can expect military punishment from Israel to continue. Netanyahu told his cabinet on May 27 that the campaign against Iranian aggression had not ended: “We are working to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons…against Iran’s consolidated military presence against us… and operating against the transfer of deadly weapons from Syria to Lebanon or their manufacture in Lebanon,” he said.
By this statement, that was carried on Israeli television, the Israeli prime minister served notice on Tehran that its ballistic missiles and all the different types of ground-to-air weapons it is deploying in Syria and Lebanon are at risk, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report. There was therefore no point in Iran continuing to import to Syria or Lebanon the elements of a military infrastructure, since Israel would destroy them all.
This strategy has two rationales – one American and one Israeli.
In Washington, Israel’s systematic demolition of Iranian ballistic missiles when deployed or manufactured in Syria or Lebanon is seen as a major obstacle in the path of any attempt by Tehran to circumvent Pompeo’s demand to halt its missile development on pain of harsh sanctions. Israel, for its part, refuses to accept a situation which removes Iranian and Hizballah forces from its border, but allows them to continue to spread their missile net across the rest of Syria and in Lebanon.
Moscow, from riding high after a successful military campaign in support of Bashar Assad, is sliding into a morass of warring interests, as Putin maneuvers to orchestrate Syria’s post-war future. On the one hand, his attempt to forge a broad understanding with the Trump administration and other involved parties has fallen flat. He sees as his only remaining option the task of helping the Assad regime finally recover all the populated areas of Syria from rebel control. This cannot be accomplished without the military input of Iran and its surrogates, Hizballah and the foreign Shiite militias.
On the other hand, Putin and Tehran are at odds on their conception of Syria’s future. The Russians know that Tehran’s persistent consolidation of its military grip on Syria and that of Hizballah are a recipe for further military clashes with Israel, which can only distance the Russian leader from his objective of a politically viable and stable Syria. Hence the high importance attached to the meeting of Israeli and Russian defense ministers in Moscow on Thursday.
According to our sources they agreed only on a provisional deal for the border regions that was based on Israel’s latest Gaza ceasefire formula, namely, quiet will be met with quiet. Israel agreed for now to abstain from military action in the “de-escalation zone” of southern Syria and Quneitra, so long as Russian military police – essentially a Chechen commando unit – remain in control there under a set-up agreed in understandings between Russia and the US. However, the moment that other forces enter this zone, they will encounter Israel’s armed forces. It was evident to the two defense ministers that this arrangement is extremely fragile. They agreed to continue discussing Moscow’s proposal for Iran and Hizballah to withdraw from the de-escalation zone and the Syrian rebels there surrendering and enlisting with Syrian government forces. This proposal took a step forward in the phone conversation that took place Thursday night between President Vladimir Putin and the Israeli prime minister.