By Jacob L. Shapiro
While the rest of the world was focused on the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons outside Damascus over the weekend, on April 9 Israel’s air force attacked an Iranian target in Syria for the second time in 2018. The target was Tiyas air base, located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Palmyra. Separately, Israel also hit a Hamas base in northern Gaza.
Israel’s decision to conduct operations in two countries on the same night is unusual, but tactically the operations fit Israel’s modus operandi. In recent decades, Israel has eschewed the large-scale pre-emptive attacks of the 1950s and 1960s, instead focusing on maintaining effective deterrence against would-be challengers. Israel arrived at its deterrence strategy as much because of its reticence to commit large numbers of ground forces to conflicts as because of the weakness of its adversaries. Israel cannot invade Gaza every time Gazan Palestinians plant a bomb on the Israeli border, but it also cannot let such activity go unanswered. The same is true of Iran’s moves in Syria. It is unlikely that a strategy meant for a group like Hamas will work against a much more dangerous foe like Iran, but for now it’s the best choice available.
It is unclear exactly what triggered the Israeli attack in Syria. Israel has enumerated at least two red lines when it comes to Syria: It will not tolerate either the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah or a permanent Iranian presence on the ground. But whether a violation of one or both of those red lines set off the attack is immaterial. What must be more worrying for Israel is that its first strike on the base in February – whose efficacy the Israel Defense Forces uncharacteristically went out of their way to advertise – seems to have failed to chasten Iran. This weekend’s limited strike likely will be no more successful, which means for Israel, southern Syria has become another Gaza Strip.
Russia, which is providing air support for the Assad regime and by extension for Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces in Syria, expressed its displeasure with the Israeli airstrike, with the foreign minister labeling it “a very dangerous development.” Privately, Russia may be more ambivalent. Russia and Israel have a pragmatically open relationship, which means Israeli red lines are not a mystery to Moscow. Russia has shown a willingness to test the limits in Syria to see just how far it can push regional powers before they respond (consider Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015 that briefly crossed into Turkish airspace), so Russian support for Iran’s moves at Tiyas cannot be dismissed out of hand.
Even so, if Russia knew what was going on at Tiyas air base, it would also have known that Israel would respond. And this is not necessarily a bad thing for Russia’s interests, its public protest notwithstanding. Russia got involved in Syria because oversupply was depressing oil prices and to recover some pride after its failure in Ukraine. It is staying in Syria because the survival of the Assad regime and of Iran’s forces in the country is crucial to the creation of a balance of power between Turkey and Iran. Russia’s continued involvement is essential so that Turkey won’t overrun Syria and install a pro-Turkey government, but Russia would be equally uncomfortable with complete Iranian domination of Syria. Better for Israel to slap Iran on the wrist than for Moscow to have to rein it in.
Ironically, this is where the U.S. and Russia see somewhat eye to eye. The U.S. has been mired in the Middle East since it destroyed the previous balance when it removed Saddam Hussein from power. The U.S. thought it was creating a Mesopotamian liberal democracy; instead, it got an Islamic Hydra. This forced the U.S. into an uneasy nuclear deal with Iran and a complicated relationship with Syrian Kurdish groups that poses a mortal threat to the U.S.-Turkey relationship. Russia thus far has sought to capitalize on U.S. blundering in the region, in part because the U.S. has been unwilling to soften its position on any of the issues most important to Russia, such as Ukraine or economic sanctions. But unlike on those issues, the U.S. and Russia don’t have diverging interests in the Middle East.
The problem is that it has become impossible to separate those other U.S.-Russia disputes from what’s happening in the Middle East. When the problem was the Islamic State, bygones could be bygones, but with IS off the table – or at least mostly off the table – all the various players are moving to secure their own interests. Turkey has invaded northern Syria and shows no signs of stopping. Iran is building bases and support networks as it seeks to transform the Assad regime into Hezbollah 2.0. Israel can no longer ignore the threat Iran poses, especially since Turkey seems determined to retain as much independence of action as possible, even if it means publicly spurning the United States. If the U.S. wants Turkey’s cooperation, the price will be giving up the Syrian Kurds, and for as long as that drives a wedge between the U.S. and Turkey, a regional coalition against Iran can’t materialize.
All the while, the U.S. watches what is going on and cannot quite figure out what to do with itself. The situation baffled the Obama administration, which promised attacks against Assad one minute and engaged in de facto military coordination with the Syrian regime the next. The Trump administration appears similarly flummoxed, trapped between the brazen brutality of the Assad regime and the limited strategic benefit of doing anything to stop it. The reality that the U.S. struggles to accept is that it has no strategic interest in Syria. This is not the Cold War; it’s a regional blood feud. With no overarching sense of what “success” would look like from Washington’s point of view, the U.S. has been purely reactive on every development in Syria. Perhaps predictably, the U.S. is the last to know it.
Israel, Turkey and Iran all have skin in the game. Russia wants to keep the game going. The U.S. doesn’t know what the game is, but it might fire off some Tomahawk missiles all the same.