By Foreign Policy—
Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz recently told a security conference in Herzliya, as reported by Reuters, that in a future war between Israel and Hezbollah the latter may be able to make use of an Iranian naval port, bases for Irans air and ground forces, and Tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen being brought in from various countries.
Anyone who has received briefings from senior Israeli security officials in recent years has become familiar with a conception of the region as divided into four broad blocs: Iran and its allies; a loose group of countries opposed to Iran that includes the Arab autocracies of the Gulf, along with Egypt, Jordan, and Israel itself; an alliance of conservative Sunni Islamist forces, such as Turkey, Qatar, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Sunni Arab rebels in Syria; and finally the regional networks of Sunni Salafi jihadism, most notably the Islamic State and al Qaeda.
– Iran and Israel may be on the verge of conflict in Syria –
Some Israelis like to go to the Golan, where from the safety of a ramp overlooking the valley below, they can watch — no binoculars needed — the most consequential regional event of the age: the Syrian civil war.
However, the Israel Defense Forces closed the area for visitors, letting in only the local farmers who worried about missing the cherry harvest.
That’s because for three days in a row, mortar shells flew across the border onto the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan, putting war gawkers at too much risk.
Most likely, the shells overflew their real target: one of the sides in the increasingly heated battle in an area around Quneitra, a town divided between Israel and Syria. Various Sunni militias are entrenched in the area, and Syrian forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are trying to clear them out.
Control of the road between Quneitra and Dara to the south (where the uprising against Assad started six years ago) is key for the Syrian army — and even more so for its patrons in Tehran. By capturing this road, and the area east of Israel and north of Jordan, they can establish a land corridor from Iran, through Iraq, to Damascus and Syria’s neighbor, Lebanon.
Throw in Yemen, and Iran’s dream of a “Shiite crescent” that would make it the Mideast’s dominant force comes true.
The Syria war is complex, involving many powers pulling in all directions. But Iran and its allied militias — Shiite Iraqis, foreigners from Afghanistan and elsewhere, Hezbollah, Assad’s army — have emerged as a chief worry for policymakers in Riyadh, Amman and Jerusalem.
True, Israel knows how to handle spillover from war on its border. IDF surgical strikes hit Syrian army targets over the past few days, which was enough to at least pause the cross-border seepage of fire into the Golan.
The larger concern for Israeli policymakers here is that Iran and its allied militias, already in control of south Lebanon, are trying to cement a beachhead in Syria.
And that’s exactly what’s happening. “Iran is attempting to use the civil war to establish air force and naval bases in Syria,” Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio this week.
It’s not just Syria. IDF intelligence chief Herzi Halevi said Iran is also building arms factories in Lebanon, a country now dominated by its local proxy, Hezbollah. The mullahs, he said, similarly use Yemeni proxies, the Houthis, to manufacture weapons in that strategically located country next door to Saudi Arabia.
So where’s America in all this?
The Obama administration considered Iran an ally in the fight against ISIS. That, and the nuclear deal that filled the mullahs’ coffers with cash, worried the Saudis so much that they quietly turned to Israel as an ally to confront Tehran.
And not only Saudis. Ha’aretz reports Jordan and Israel have tightened intelligence cooperation in recent weeks to better address the growing Iranian threat on Syrian territory near both countries’ borders.
US forces are reportedly also operating there in growing numbers. Better yet, President Trump has made clear his predecessor’s romance with Tehran was just a fling. The administration has been warning Iran to watch its step as it stomps around the Middle East.
That may have been behind the seemingly-out-of-the-blue White House announcement Monday, confirmed by the Pentagon Tuesday, that it’s detected signs Syria is preparing a new chemical attack. Trump officials warned Assad would pay a “heavy price” for using chemical weapons again.
Yet, widely reported internal fights among administration bigwigs over America’s involvement in the Syria war could hamstring the united anti-Iran front that Sunni allies are hoping for. Washington’s bickering over Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, an Iran ally, isn’t helping either.
According to a Fox News report, Trump is quietly organizing a regional conference, inviting Sunni allies and perhaps even Israel. If so, good — but administration officials will surely hear a lot about the need for America to take a clear stand against Iran’s expansion.
The region is on edge. A victory over ISIS seems close now, but if Iran emerges on top, a wider and more vicious war may ensue, with dire consequences for everyone, including America.