As should be clear following Israel’s strike last week against a Syrian missile factory in Masyaf, Israel’s Syria dilemma is only growing worse rather than getting better. Iran’s presence in Syria is hardening as it builds the infrastructure to remain there in the long term, and Israel is facing the real possibility of having to counter a permanent Iranian threat right across its northern border as opposed to worrying about sporadic weapons shipments to Hizballah. What turns this from a thorny problem into a nightmarish one is the added variable of Russia, whose interests in Syria align more with Iranian ones than with Israeli ones. Tangling with Iran is one thing; tangling with a superpower is altogether different, and dealing with Iran and Russia requires separate strategies. One is a hostile adversary while the other is a cautiously friendly superpower, and checking the first cannot be effectively done without limiting a potential rupture with the second. Israel should be pursuing three simultaneous strategies in order to deal with the security challenges emanating from Syria while making sure that things with Russia do not spiral out of control, as having Russia as an adversary is not worth the price of rolling back Iran.
First, Israel must communicate a set of credible threats, not just in terms of following through but also in establishing reasonable red lines. There was an odd moment in 2013 when President Obama decided not to enforce his own stated red line following the Assad regime’s massacre of its own citizens with sarin gas. Some observers defended the president by arguing that credibility and the notion of credible threats do not matter. This was odd because the concept of credible threats is one of the most important in international relations, and is the very foundation of effective deterrence. In the case of Israel and Syria, the Israeli government wants to deter Iran from turning Syria into a base from which to attack Israel without drawing Russia directly into the fight, and thus needs to take a number of variables into account when communicating credible threats. As Amos Yadlin noted in the New York Times, Israel has to deliver on its tough rhetoric, but this also means that the rhetoric itself has to be carefully measured. It is unfortunately infeasible at this point to eliminate any and all Iranian presence in Syria, and threatening to do so will do more harm than good. Israel is not prepared to go after every Iranian position that looks like it will become permanently entrenched, and threats to do so would be exposed as hollow. And even if it were, that would immediately impact Russian interests in Syria, as Russia is using Iranian forces as an effective proxy to maintain the current government in power.
The only way to keep Russia on the sidelines is to establish thresholds for attacks that Moscow will deem reasonable – despite Israel being prepared to loosen its standards absent Russian involvement in Syria – and to then be unwavering in enforcing those red lines without exception. Israel’s initial red line was Iranian transfers of advanced “game changing” weaponry to Hizballah, which was acceptable to Russia and proceeded apace with the only hiccup coming last March when an Israeli strike came too close to a Russian troop position. As Iran’s position in Syria has expanded, Israel’s new red line appears to be advanced weapons factories. If last week’s strike is any indication, Russia deems this to be acceptable as well, given its lack of real-time or follow-up response. While there has been speculation that the strike was an Israeli signal to Russia that it can strike anywhere and any time, I find it difficult to believe that Israel would risk a live fire incident with Russian troops or the enormously successful communication and coordination the two countries have had in Syrian airspace so far by destroying the Masyaf facility without giving Moscow a prior heads up. So long as Israel continues to establish triggers for military action that are confined to checking and punishing Iran without threatening Russia’s larger interests in Syria – so for instance, not threatening to bring down the Assad regime, which would certainly draw Russia in – the delicate balance of countering Iran under a Russian shadow should remain successful. Any loose talk about significantly expanding Israel’s involvement in Syria though can easily upend this.
Second, Israel must do whatever it can to make mischief for Iran in ways that do not impact Russia at all, and that may even draw tacit Russian support. At the moment, this most prominently involves support for Kurdish independence or autonomy in both Syria and Iraq, to which Iran is vehemently opposed while Russia is not. Despite the fact that the Kurdish forces have been effective in rolling back ISIS and thus working toward the same goal as Iran, the Kurdish drive for independence threatens Iranian territorial integrity in the long term given its own large Kurdish minority. Aside from its own domestic concerns, Iran does not want to see the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq break away either given Iranian influence over Iraq, but the KRG is holding a referendum on independence on September 25. While Israel should not be in the business of arming or militarily supporting Kurdish forces in Syria given their links to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party – not to mention Israel’s own checkered history of supporting proxy forces with the South Lebanese Army – there is no question that Kurdish separatism is a political headache for Iran. Furthermore, Kurdish nationalism could eventually morph into a military threat that draws Iranian attention away from Israel, making it something Israel should back.
What makes this an even easier call for Israel is that, unlike Iran, Russia sees opportunity in being out front on the issue of Kurdish autonomy, and is supporting the September 25 referendum going ahead as planned. Russia has also been open to the concept of a Syrian federation with an autonomous Kurdish region, which Iran has not. Prime Minister Netanyahu wisely announced yesterday that Israel supports Kurdish independence, making it the first state to do so, and Israel should keep on pushing this issue. It is a way to throw Iran off balance in Syria without running afoul of Russia, and is more promising than trying to decouple Russia from Iran militarily.
Finally, despite its opposition from day one, Israel should drop any efforts to have the U.S. pull out of the Iran deal right now. My misgivings about the deal that day that it was announced remain the same, but reopening it now makes little sense for Israeli security interests. Iranian intentions following the deal’s expiration may be entirely nefarious, but there is little question that for now, the deal has been successful in removing the nuclear mess from Israel’s plate and replacing it with a far less terrifying one. The fact that Israel is now concerned with keeping Iranian missile factories and advanced conventional weapons out of Syria rather than keeping Iranian nuclear weapons at bay is a net positive. Why Israel would want to reopen this issue now makes little sense to me, and Netanyahu’s apparent push to get President Trump to scrap the deal strikes me as myopic. But leaving aside the debate over Iran’s long term intentions, the Russian angle to this makes it even less appealing for Israel to lobby the U.S. to pull out. It bears reminding that the Iran deal is not a bilateral treaty between the U.S. and Iran, but an agreement that involves a host of other partners, none of whom – and least of all Moscow – have any appetite to revisit anything. If the U.S. actually does decertify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, there is virtually zero chance that the other countries on the U.S. side of the table agree to reimpose sanctions on Iran, and there is a less than zero chance that they acquiesce to any military action to deal with the reanimated Iranian nuclear threat. Israel’s push to have the deal torpedoed is only going to anger Russia, push Russia and Iran closer together, and make Israel’s freedom of action in Syria much narrower. It would be one thing for Israel to be campaigning to have the U.S. pull out of the agreement if Israel were not in the midst of having to manage to operate in Syria under Russian good graces, but given the urgency of maintaining cooperation with Russia and seeing firsthand the benefits of being able to focus on limiting Iranian conventional capabilities rather than nuclear ones, Israel should be sitting on its hands.
It is no easy task to launch successful strikes against one state’s military positions right under the nose of that state’s superpower ally and actually get the superpower to turn a blind eye. Netanyahu and Israel are to be commended for the hard diplomatic work it has taken to pull off this feat. Israel’s top security priority right now should be ensuring that this state of affairs continues. Not only would anything else be a distraction from what is currently Israel’s most pressing threat, it runs the risk of creating a threat from Russia that would be larger than anything else Israel has faced.