Israel's Syria Conundrum

Israel is avoiding official comment over the recent events in Syria, where the regime is a longstanding enemy neighbor. But the enemy you don't know can always be worse.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Marc Henry

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has asked his ministers to keep a low profile concerning the current events in Syria. This order by the head of the government is a sign of Israel's confusion over how to react to the recent demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, as well as its sense of powerlessness. As local commentators and experts in the media like to underline, Israel is facing a dilemma.

"On the one hand, Bashar al-Assad is a lesser evil, a hostile leader whose actions are nevertheless rational and predictable. On the other, his fall from power would weaken the axis of evil constituted by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah of Lebanon, and Palestinian Islamists of Hamas," says Professor Meir Litvak, referring to the four most formidable enemies of Israel. A university specialist on Iran, Litvak alludes to the Syrian role in allowing, for many years now, the transport of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas which they then use to threaten the north and south of Israel. This alliance is also evidenced by the presence of Hamas headquarters in Damascus.

Plans of Attacks

Yet at the Syrian border with Israel, particularly in the Golan Heights, Bashar al-Assad has continued to preserve the peace, anxious to avoid even the slightest direct confrontation with an enemy he knows to be superior. He even refrained from responding to a September 2007 air attack - believed to be Israeli according to foreign experts - against a nuclear center that was being secretly built in northern Syria with the help of North Korea.

However this cautious approach could be thrown to the wind by the beleaguered el-Assad. Itamar Rabinovitch, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, does not preclude the possibility of a desperate attempt by al-Assad and the Iranians "to trigger a conflict with Israel in Lebanon or the Gaza Strip" in order to divert attention from the situation in Syria. It might not be a coincidence that the counter-terrorism office, an official organization under the authority of the prime minister, has just launched a warning about some "very specific" plans for anti-Israeli attacks abroad that Hezbollah might be about to commit.

In terms of a possible post-el-Assad period, the uncertainty is also obvious. Israeli media has raised the worrying possibility of a civil war in Syria, which could bolster the Muslim Brotherhood. Commentator Mordehaï Kedar, speaking on public radio, suggested the situation could even lead to the break-up of Syria, with a Kurdish state in the North, Druze one in the South, a Bedouin enclave in the East, and the region around Damascus transformed into an Alawite principality, the minority religion to which al-Assad belongs. He warned that this implosion would lead to the return of a fragmented Middle East, divided along ethnic and religious lines, which prevailed during the Ottoman Empire.

Not everyone agrees with this analysis of the situation. The majority of experts believe that it will be the Syrian army, which until now has remained loyal al-Assad, which will decide the fate of the regime and guarantee the country's unity.

Read the original article in French

Photo - The Jewish Agency for Israel

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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