Ceasefire in Syria may force its neighbors to revise their policies.
The first to consider such a change was Israel. The problem is that the second biggest terrorist group acting in Syria, Al-Nusra Front, is quite active near the Israeli border, and just like ISIL, it is not mentioned in the ceasefire agreements. In the Qalamun province, Al-Nusra is opposed by Hezbollah. So, with al-Nusra not being part of the ceasefire together, it will certainly face continued joint attacks by Hezbollah, the Syrian army and Russia’s air forces.
They in Israel are keeping an eye on the activities of Hezbollah, Shia volunteers from Iraq and Iranian Islamic revolution guards in the south of Syria. Here ceasefire seems to be a problem as apart from al-Nusra positions of Jayish al-Islam are rather strong at this section of the frontline and it was very hostile to the truce.
At first glance, it seems that Israel has no need to revise its policy as on its northeastern border things seem to be the same. But this is not the case. With al-Nusra proclaimed as a terrorist group, Israel’s key enemy in Lebanon, Hezbollah is facing a chance to turn into the key anti-terror force in Syria.
This may cause Israel a bunch of problems. Will the Americans be consistent in their attitude towards Hezbollah, whom they have regarded as a terrorist group since 1997? Will the Russians observe their informal agreements with the Israelis and close eyes on Israel’s policy not to let transportation of military hardware from Syria to Lebanon? In this light, the Israelis continue their air raids in Syria.
Experts have qualified Israel’s strategy on Syria as “let all of our enemies bleed.” Today the Syrian conflict has grown into a war of all against all. For Israel this is good as Hezbollah is losing lots of people in Syria. According to different sources, 5,000-7,000 Lebanese Shias are involved in the Syrian war. There are no official statistics on how many Shias have been killed so far but the loss of 15-20% of all fighters looks quite realistic. Some Israeli experts claim that since 2013 Hezbollah has lost over 1,500 men.
Thus, the Lebanese anti-Zionists are sustaining serious losses in Syria. So, they will hardly afford a direct front against Israel. Despite support from Iran, Hezbollah has limited resources. But despite its losses, that Lebanese group has gained serious experience of fighting in valleys and rough terrain. So, even though losing men, Hezbollah is improving its capability to wage mobile wars using limited resources.
In case of a long-term ceasefire, that Lebanese group will heal its wounds and will turn its eyes towards Israel. So, the Israelis need some changes in their strategy on Syria. They need something braver than just air strikes on facilities and vehicles.
This is why Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that any attempt by Hezbollah or any other pro-Iranian force to step over the “red line” will receive a very harsh response.
The Israelis are so openly anti-Iranian that they are ready to see in Syria whomever - even ISIL - but Iran. At a conference in Tel-Aviv in Jan 2016 Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said that should he have to choose enemy in Syria, he would prefer ISIL to Iran (1).
But once ceasefire takes force, the Israelis will have to show something more than just anti-Iranian approach and air strikes. They need a foothold in Syria – some constructive force that will offer them military and political dividends.
The first thing that comes into mind is Syrian Kurds and their PYD and YPG. Those forces are fighting far from the Israeli border in the north and northeast of Syria. But they are quite efficient in fighting ISIL and al-Nusra and their very presence in the region keeps Iran’s satellites away from it.
Besides, Syrian Kurds are free from the Bashar al-Assad regime and will hardly ally with the Syrian army and Hezbollah. Even if now they are interacting with the Syrian army against ISIL and al-Nusra, in future they will push different interests in the north of Syria.
Their goal is autonomy. Israel was among the first to support Kurdish autonomy in Iraq, so, the same may happen in Syria. Iran is suspicious of this tendency as it has Kurdish community in its northwestern provinces. Now that Kurdish and Iraqi Kurds have stood up, Iranian Kurds will hardly be indifferent. So, there certainly will be tectonic shifts in the Kurdish landscape and they will certainly affect Iran.
Israel is not the only one that wants to cause pain to Iran. Its geopolitical antipode, Saudi Arabia, has similar plans. Now that Iran has created grey zones near their borders (Syria in case of Israel and Yemen and Iraq in case of Saudi Arabia), both countries are eager to counteract.
“Great Kurdistan” may prove to be a real gift for Iran’s enemies. For Israel this US-Russian-Saudi protectorate is a key element in any Middle East scenario.
Israel needs a new strategy just as it needs contacts with the key sponsors of the Syrian peace process. On Dec 11 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed the importance of joint Russian-Israeli activities in Syria. In their turn, the Israelis promised their Russian partners to continue supporting them in the Syrian air.
On ground, things are more complicated as here Russia is cooperating with Iran. But on the other hand, this is a guarantee that the Israelis will have no direct conflict with the Iranians. And even though analysts in Israel are forecasting a new conflict with Hezbollah, hopes that the Syrian war will not go outside Syria are still alive.
(1) Asa Winstanley, Is Israel changing its strategy in Syria’s war? // Middle East Monitor, 26 February 2016.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau