As President Donald Trump prepares for his summit meeting on July 16, 2018, with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, the Syrian Assad regime continues its military campaign with Russian support to recapture southwestern Syria and the areas, including the Syrian Golan Heights, abutting Israel and Jordan’s borders. The significance of this campaign lies in the retaking of Dar’a, where the spark of Syrian rebellion was lit in 2011. This expected victory for the Assad regime has strategic ramifications for Syria and the region, especially Israel.
This campaign was made possible through a reported agreement between Russia and Israel, with American and Jordanian blessing. As expected, the agreement reflects a scenario that Israel and Russia can live with following heightening tension between them. From a Russian perspective, this tension was consequent upon Israel’s efforts to curb Iranian influence and presence in Syria by targeting both Iranian and Syrian military infrastructure. Tension peaked when Israel struck the Syrian army T4 base on April 9, 2018, without giving Russia, unlike previous times, an advance notice. The Syrian T4 military base near Homs hosted, in addition to Russian and Syrian troops, an Iranian drone facility out of which an armed Iranian drone was sent to Israel on February 10. Russia was concerned about Israel indirectly or directly bringing the downfall of the Syrian regime, which constituted a red line for Moscow. Israel has been worried about Iran deepening its military power in Syria and inching closer to the Golan Heights. As it turned out, Russia and Israel acknowledged the dangers resulting from a potential fallout in their relationship. As a result, Israel came to accept Russian promise of keeping Iranian forces and their proxies 80 km from the Golan Heights. In exchange, Israel will not threaten or undermine the Asad regime, while at the same time continuing to address any Iranian threat to its security.
As the campaign gained steam, Israel has faced an influx of Syrians rushing to its border. Will Israel allow them in? Will Israel continue its policy of supporting some opposition groups? Will Israel continue treating and helping Syrians in need of medical and subsistence help? Apparently, Israel will most likely not allow any Syrian into its territory, stop supporting armed opposition groups, but will continue helping Syrians.
Arguably, the Israeli-Syrian 1974 “disengagement agreement” over the Golan Heights will most likely be rewritten by Russia, Israel, Jordan and US, whereby Syrian regime forces will deploy along Israel and Jordan’s borders. Part of this agreement would entail the demarcation of safe zones that will house Syrian refugees and internally displaced. Neither Lebanon nor Jordan has been keen on accepting fleeing Syrians from Dar’a province.
The medium to long term problem is whether Russia will be able to keep Iranian forces far from Israel and Jordan’s borders. Reportedly, some Iranian proxies have covertly integrated with Syrian army units advancing towards the Golan. Central to this problem is Moscow’s complex relationship with Tehran in that in as much Russia needs Iran in Syria as it is against Iranian influence at the expense of that of the Syrian regime. This is Putin’s dilemma and by extension Israel’s predicament.
Conversely, Putin knows that Assad cannot remain president for long should a political resolution become achievable. Putin would like to see a political resolution protecting his Western bastion in Syria. The resolution would most likely entail an alternative to Assad leadership after few years as a concession to Syrian opposition and US allies. It’s safe to argue that the aforementioned scenarios would most likely be discussed during the upcoming summit within the context of a deal preserving the Syrian regime in exchange of curbing Iranian influence in Syria. But this is easily said than done. Be as it may, the unfolding developments will no doubt sanction the regime’s gory victory in its civil war in contrast to Israel’s gathering predicament.
*Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author most recently of The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016); Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); and White Heart (2018). The author can be reached @robertgrabil.