Source: The Wall Street Journal – by Yaroslav Trofimov (Israel’s Main Concern in Syria: Iran, not ISIS)
For some Israelis, desire to contain Tehran trumps fight against Islamic State, al Qaeda
Unlike Syria’s other neighbors, Israel has by and large stayed away from the war that is ripping the country apart. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t deeply interested in how the five-year conflict ends—or that its interests are necessarily aligned with Washington’s.
The Israeli government’s priority is clear: to stop the rise of Iran as a regional power following last year’s nuclear deal and the lifting of international sanctions on Tehran. It is an approach that has increasingly aligned Israel with the anti-Iranian, Sunni Muslim camp led by Saudi Arabia.
Asked in an interview to state Israel’s main objective in Syria, Dore Gold, the director-general of the foreign ministry, said: “At the end of the day, when some kind of modus vivendi is reached inside of Syria, it is critical from the Israeli standpoint that Syria does not emerge as an Iranian satellite incorporated fully into the Iranian strategic system.”
For the U.S. and other Western nations, by contrast, the main priority in Syria is to destroy Islamic State and other Sunni radical movements that are perhaps even more opposed to Iran’s rival Shiite theocracy than they are to the West.
Peace talks under way in Geneva aim to find some sort of political agreement that would allow the Iranian-backed Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the moderate Sunni opposition to turn their weapons on Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and on al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Nusra Front.
As many Israeli officials see it, however, that wouldn’t be such a good scenario if it ends up benefiting the Syrian military and its critical Lebanese ally, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, which remains sworn to Israel’s destruction.
“If we have to choose between ISIS and Assad, we’ll take ISIS. ISIS has flatbed trucks and machine guns. Assad represents the strategic arch from Tehran to Beirut, 130,000 rockets in the hands of Hezbollah, and the Iranian nuclear program,” said Michael Oren, a prominent lawmaker from Israel’s governing coalition and a former ambassador to Washington.
One Israeli official joked that his talking points on the regional confrontation have become virtually identical to those of his Sunni Arab counterparts. This alignment spurred some unusual exchanges this month in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, after Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies labeled Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Lawmakers from Israel’s Arab parties condemned the Gulf countries’ decision as an “act of loyalty to neocolonialist and Zionist forces.” In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, decried as “crazy” the criticism of the Saudi kingdom, which under Israeli law technically remains an enemy state.
Israel’s immediate concerns are to prevent Hezbollah from opening a second front from Syrian soil opposite the Israeli-held Golan Heights, and to prevent transfers of sophisticated Iranian weapons to the Lebanese militia.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin discussed these concerns with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday, Israeli media reported. While Russia has deployed its military to assist Mr. Assad’s regime, it didn’t interfere with recent Israeli airstrikes against suspected Hezbollah weapons convoys and depots inside Syria.
Currently, most of Syria around the Golan Heights is controlled by rebel groups, including Nusra Front.
Israel has acknowledged providing medical help to Syrians injured near the demarcation line, including rebel fighters. But it has stopped short of openly training, arming or funding Syrian proxies.
Not everyone in Israel’s foreign-policy and security establishment is confident that such a focus on Iran and Hezbollah—while turning a relatively blind eye to Islamic State and al Qaeda—constitutes a wise policy in the long run.
“Israel’s interests in Syria narrow down to one thing: calm borders as it used to be. We prefer the Syrian army to be on the Golan Heights because we know how to deter Syria and even how to deter Hezbollah. But it’s a problem to deter an organization that doesn’t have assets, like ISIS and Nusra,” said Israel’s former national-security adviser, Maj. Gen.Uzi Dayan.
Thinking that mutual hostility toward Iran could bring about a lasting alliance with the Sunni powers betrays a profound misunderstanding of the region, added Avi Dichter, a prominent lawmaker from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party who served as minister of internal security and as head of the Shin Bet security and intelligence agency.
“The phrase ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ works in many languages, but it doesn’t work in Arabic. In Arabic, there is a another saying: I with my brother against my cousin, and I with my cousin against the stranger,” Mr. Dichter said. “They still see Iran as the cousin. And we will always remain the strangers.”