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Decision Time in Syria

It’s always been hard to tell just what everyone wanted in Syria. Thanks to Iran, we now have a clearer idea.

|May 21, 2018

By George Friedman

Several years into its civil war, Syria is less its own country and more a loosely defined area where other countries advance their interests. There are now six powers involved there: Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, Israel and the Syrian government itself. (I exclude the British and French, who only sometimes visit.) There are also several stateless groups, such as the Islamic State and the Syrian Kurds, that are trying to carve out some space for themselves. Their territories expanded and contracted, but the basic reality is that Syria is in chaos, and the chaos was tacitly agreed upon.

Several major powers, each with their own uncertain goals, forged and broke their alliances in an endless swirl of activity. No one had the inclination, let alone the strength, to resolve the conflict. No one wanted to absorb the political cost of withdrawing. The old Mafia phrase, “once in, never out,” applied to all from the outside but much more to those on the inside.

At first glance, Iran appears to be the first among equals of those left standing in Syria. But it’s important to understand the context in which the growth of Iranian power took place. One of Iran’s foremost priorities is to dominate Iraq, a similarly Shiite-majority country that, from the times of the Babylonians to the times of the Baathists, has imperiled whatever government was to its east. Iran is compelled to neutralize threats from the west, and the Islamic State certainly qualified as a threat, so it helped the Iraqi government defeat it.

Now that the Islamic State is in retreat, Iran has enhanced its presence throughout the region. Hezbollah, the Shiite proxy group it controls, is well entrenched in Lebanon. The government in Tehran has projected power into the Arabian Peninsula by aiding Shiites fighting in the Yemeni civil war.

Iran’s power did not expand despite the Syrian civil war but because of the Syrian civil war, which has induced a vast regional shift that put Iranian capabilities on all sides of Saudi Arabia, creating the possibility that Iranian forces could threaten the west coast of the Persian Gulf and ultimately take control of part of the Mediterranean Sea. This is a historic breakout.

But it is also a shallow breakout. So thin are its forces throughout much of the region, Iran is vulnerable to military attack virtually everywhere except Lebanon by any country willing to pay the price of an attack. The government in Tehran, meanwhile, is plagued by political and economic instability at home. The broad outline of a more powerful Iran may have been drawn, but Iran still has a ways to go before becoming a decisive regional power.

We now know what the Iranians want to achieve in Syria: They want to subordinate the Assad government, align it militarily with their own interests, and use it to block intrusions from the Mediterranean and Israel. The Syria-Lebanon line secures Iran’s western flank while the Syria-Iraq line, if thickened, blocks Turkey. For the Iranians, the Russians serve as an additional force to protect them from the Americans and to provide them with political cover as they turn Syria into a de facto protectorate.

The new strategic reality of the Middle East has begun to dictate Israel’s behavior. We previously wrote about how Israel had disengaged with Lebanon and Syria. Now, with the Iranians hardening their position in Syria, the Israelis believe they must counter the Iranians sooner rather than later. The longer they wait, the more secure Iranian facilities can be made. The Israelis have therefore launched a series of wide-ranging air attacks against Iranian bases.

And they have done so as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow to try to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his political cover of the Iranians. The Russians, for their part, do not share long-term interests with Iran, particularly in the Caucasus. But in the short term, the Russian military can’t impose its will on Syria and so needs Iran’s help. A pro-Iranian Syria is not what the Russians want, but at the moment, they prefer that to the collapse of Iranian power in the region.

Israel’s attacks are not without risk, of course. Hezbollah could launch missiles from Lebanon, and Hamas has the ability to launch rockets from Gaza. Israel has an excellent missile and rocket defense system, but any system can be saturated by too many incoming objects. Israel’s military strategy therefore is to settle the Iran issue before Lebanon and Gaza get more involved.

Its political strategy involves the decision of the United States to have aligned itself with Israel. Withdrawing from the nuclear deal, opening the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and defending and praising the Israeli airstrike in Syria is all part of a systematic effort to intimidate Iran. If Israel were to be joined by the United States in an attack on Iran in Syria, or if the Israelis handled Syria while the United States dealt with Iraq, then all the gains Iran has made will have been for nothing.

I do not think the United States is inclined to go to war, nor could it do so in a short period of time even if it wanted to. But the one thing the U.S. has become is unpredictable. Iran may doubt that a joint campaign between Israel and the U.S. would take place, but it may not be willing to risk its life on that doubt. The Israelis are hoping that the uncertainty will reduce Iran’s appetite for risk and put Hezbollah on hold lest it lose its position in Syria and Lebanon alike.

This is the state of play in Syria. Iran is trying to create a sustainable position from the Zagros Mountains to the Mediterranean. Israel wants to prevent Iran from doing so. Russia will try to support Iran while somehow undermining Iran’s long-term interests. The United States is creating uncertainty while encouraging Israeli attacks. Turkey continues to watch and wait, hoping that it can settle some of its domestic problems, especially its economic vulnerabilities, and strengthening its military, before it has to commit more to Syria.

In effect, Iran has made its move, and now everyone’s interests are beginning to crystallize. We are still in the political phase in which the goal is to break Iranian nerve or cause some sort of tension in Teheran. But the war that has been waged since the Arab Spring is now very different in almost every aspect.