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Israel’s Geopolitical Gut Check

A once favorable balance of power has shifted, clipping Tel Aviv's wings.

Tel Aviv has had a bad few weeks. A once favorable regional balance of power has suddenly shifted in a direction that clips Israel’s wings—all while adversaries on its borders are making swift strategic gains.

At the core of the issue is Israel’s obsession with Iranian ascendancy in the region. The 2015 nuclear deal that ended the Islamic Republic’s isolation was a real setback for the Israeli establishment, but what really hit home this summer was a steady succession of political and military victories for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

So Israel’s power players headed to the United States and Russia to try to claw back some lost leverage on the ground.

They returned from Washington empty-handed, unable to wrest guarantees on keeping Iranian and allied troops out of southern Syria, where the U.S. and Russia in July established a de-escalation zone near Israel’s border.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s consultations with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi went nowhere too. Russian accounts of those talks describe a highly “agitated” and “emotional” Netanyahu who was told in no uncertain terms by a calm Putin: “Iran is Russia’s strategic ally in the Middle East.” To Netanyahu, Putin offered what must have comparatively felt like crumbs: “Israel is also an important partner of Russia in the region.”

The Israeli prime minister and other senior officials went on the offensive after that meeting, promising to “defend ourselves by all means” from Iran’s ambitions in Syria, and threatening military attacks on Assad’s “palace in Damascus.”

But the Russians clearly hadn’t forgotten that shortly after Netanyahu’s last encounter with Putin in March, Israel launched strikes against Russia’s Syrian ally, one of which came dangerously near Russian troops.

This time around, it seems Putin was set on drawing new red lines with Israel. In the aftermath of the Netanyahu meeting, the Russians announced the establishment of a unified air defense system with Syria, “capable of destroying targets within a range of up to 400 kilometers at an altitude of up to 35 kilometers.”

Yet the Israeli threats haven’t ceased. So, what explains the panic in Israel right now? And why has it escalated so suddenly?

Lebanon: Last week, Hezbollah, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) closed a chapter on the years-long occupation of eastern Lebanon by ISIS and the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra terrorist groups. The three forces launched a stunning military offensive that took out al-Nusra in a mere six days and ISIS in nine—including time spent in negotiations.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah dubbed the successful anti-terrorism operation “the Second Liberation”—the first being Lebanon’s liberation from Israeli occupation forces in 2000.

In the years leading up to this battle, Hezbollah and the LAF have been coordinating anti-terrorism efforts in Lebanon, an unprecedented collaboration that has outraged both Israelis and Americans. The U.S. provides training and weaponry for the LAF but considers the Lebanese resistance group a terrorist organization, even though Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s cabinet and parliament.

The liberation of the strategic Lebanese-Syrian border area has not only freed up Hezbollah forces for deployment on other frontlines—including its southern border with Israel—but importantly, now represents the first full Syrian border reclaimed by the SAA from terrorists since the start of the Syrian crisis.

“The enemy [Israel],” announced Nasrallah after the fight, “is crying over its orphans and is acknowledging the defeat of its project and friends in Syria.”

Syria: The Hezbollah leader may have a point. Outside of ISIS’s stronghold in eastern Syria where it has lost thousands of square kilometers to the SAA and its allies, the terror group occupies one small remaining territory near the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. That area in southwestern Syria is also home to several other militant groups, most prominently al-Nusra, whose injured fighters have been tended to by Israeli medics for much of the conflict.

The Israelis, who have reportedly launched dozens of strikes against Syrian allied forces during this conflict, have rarely attacked al-Nusra or ISIS. Israel’s Defense Minister in 2016, Moshe Yaalon, made headlines when he said: “In Syria, if the choice is between Iran and the Islamic State, I choose the Islamic State.” Some in the Israeli policy community have supported this line—one recent report from an Israeli think tank entitled “The Destruction of Islamic State is a Strategic Mistake” advocates for keeping ISIS around to “hamper Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.” Given Israel’s fixation with keeping Iran’s influence contained, it’s perhaps no surprise that Syria’s recent spate of victories against ISIS have set off alarm bells in Tel Aviv.

To compound Israel’s setbacks, the U.S.-Russian southern de-escalation agreement has now halted the militants’ ability to fight Syrian allied forces around Quneitra (Syrian Golan), Daraa, and As-Suwayda—areas now policed by Syria’s Russian allies.

Jordan: In Amman, a joint de-escalation monitoring center for this southern zone has just been launched, which will likely force the Jordanians to secure and normalize their northern border with Syria. Earlier this summer, the Jordanians had been on board a Saudi-led (and Israeli-supported) alliance of mostly Sunni Muslim states that sought to squash Iran’s regional influence. At the time, Jordan had loudly insisted on the removal of Iranian-backed fighters from its border with Syria. But today, that “Arab NATO” alliance has collapsed amidst a heated inter-GCC dispute, and Jordanians appear to be recalibrating their regional stance to accept the “de-escalation zone” vision launched by Russia, Turkey, and of course, Iran.

The terms of the southern de-escalation agreement reached between the U.S. and Russia are secret, but the word is that there is no specific language that diminishes the role of Iran, Hezbollah and their allied militias in Syria.

This means Israel can no longer count on Islamist militants obstructing Syrian government control over the south. It also means that Jordan, which just last week re-opened its Trebil border crossing with Iraq, is now moving incrementally toward re-opening its Nasib border crossing with Syria. The commercial dividends of these two actions could contribute between $1-2 billion to Jordan’s depleted coffers—a healthy incentive for the Jordanians to play nice with Syria.

Turkey: Jordan’s political and security “diversification” comes directly on the back of a visit to Amman by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, once the most vocal regional critic of Bashar al-Assad, and a major supplier of weapons and Islamist fighters in the Syrian military theater.

Erdoğan is back in play with the Russians and Iranians after briefly toying with the Saudi “Arab NATO” project directed against Iran. Jordanian media reports even claim the Turkish president offered to coordinate mediation with Iran to smooth over Jordan’s lingering doubts about the de-escalation zone.

But what accounts for his transformation?

While Erdoğan has not explicitly embraced an Assad-ruled Syria or an active Iranian role south of his border, two urgent regional developments have softened his position and drawn him back into the Iranian-Russian orbit.

The first is the major political crisis engulfing the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, pitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain against Qatar. Like its Turkish ally, Qatar has been a leading supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and is pursuing a diversified foreign-policy agenda, which includes political and economic relations with Iran.

The GCC spat created a further divide within the region, which until recently consisted mainly of pro-Iran and pro-Saudi camps. Now, Turkey and Qatar form a third camp, and have sought to mitigate Saudi-UAE pressures by re-engaging with Iran and its allies.

The second impetus comes from Washington’s unrelenting support for the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters in the north of Syria. Erdoğan has beseeched the Americans to abandon their support for these Kurds, who are primarily Syrian affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group considered a terrorist organization by both Ankara and Washington.

The Americans have ignored Erdoğan’s requests, even though the SDF has shown intent to occupy and federalize the entire north of Syria—from Iraq to the Mediterranean—an area spanning the length of the Turkish border.

On this issue, Ankara now shares common cause with Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus—all are vehemently opposed to Kurdish national aspirations. This realignment takes place against the backdrop of a Kurdish referendum for independence in Iraq slated for late September, which all four capitals oppose. Israel, which has close ties to the Kurdish government in Erbil, is the only country to date that supports the referendum. Kurdistan is a matter of strategic interest for Tel Aviv. The establishment of Kurdish federal entities in Syria and Iraq, after all, would mean the partitioning and weakening of those Arab states. And importantly, Kurdish statelets in these areas can act as geographic buffers that impede Iran’s easy access to Israel’s borders.

So Turkey’s re-engagement with Iran and Russia not only contributes to the stability of the Syrian state, but also puts a spanner in the works of Israel’s goal of Kurdish independence.

Hamas: The “Resistance Axis” was once a club of four: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. But conflicting objectives in Syria drew Hamas out of the group—until now. New Hamas leadership has prioritized neutral relationships with all regional states, and has sought to reinstate relations and funding from the Islamic Republic.

Last week, Hamas’ politburo chief in Gaza, Yahya Senwar, announced: “Iran is the largest supporter of the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades [Hamas’ military wing] in terms of financial support and support with weapons,” and expressed optimism that “the Syrian crisis shall end, which will open the horizons for restoring the relations with [Syria].”

For Israel, that means the rift between the Hamas-led Gaza Strip and Iran has ended, and weapons and aid will flow back to the Palestinian resistance group unimpeded.

Events on Israel’s western, northern and eastern borders have suddenly—in a few short weeks—scuttled the geopolitical balance that once favored Tel Aviv. Just a few years ago, Syria was disintegrating, Iraq was fragmenting, Lebanon was over-extended, and Gaza struggled alone.

Today, the likelihood of Iran enjoying a contiguous land corridor between its borders and the occupied Golan territory is greater than ever before. The Resistance Axis has gained tremendous military experience in the past six years in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon—and most importantly, has done so by coordinating troops, intelligence and battle plans from a single command center, for the first time in its history as an alliance. Furthermore, this axis now enjoys international political cover from two permanent UN Security Council members, Russia and China. The Russians now have significant military experience alongside three members of this axis, and the Chinese are eager to expand their economic vision into those West Asian states, with Iran as a key hub for oil and gas pipelines.

As these countries move forward to extinguish regional terrorism and reconstruct their infrastructure and societies, the Israelis will be left out in the cold. But while Israel’s options dwindle, its military plans seem to keep getting more attention. It’s the one option—the stick—that the Israelis gravitate to most easily, and a war of aggression against Lebanon and Gaza, or strikes against Syria, are not out of the question.

Hezbollah continues to demand the return of the remaining Israeli-occupied Lebanese territories, the Shebaa Farms and Kfarshuba hills, and Syria, once back on its feet, will do the same with the Golan. Both will do so from a strengthened position in this new Middle East. Yet the question remains: Does Israel recognize its new environment?

Sharmine Narwani is a commentator and analyst of Mideast geopolitics, based in Beirut.