Israel cannot accept the Iranian settlement on Syrian soil only a few kilometers from the border. IDF airstrikes in response to the Iranian rocket salvo headed for the Golan Heights attest to a regional strategic shift.
Up until recently, only the military confrontations between Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel had raised fears of a military conflagration in the region. Yet it was the Iranian Armed Forces that ordered the firing of missiles towards the Israeli occupied Golan Heights last May. The resulting IDF air strike campaign was the largest Israeli military operation in Syrian territory since 1974. This confrontation seems to have taken international observers by surprise, its geographical location, however, is not a coincidence.
This territory, lost, then disputed by Syria during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973, is the subject of intense diplomatic negotiations between the two countries. Its strategic position, its wealth in water as well as its ideological and geopolitical imaginations anchored in the history of the two states make it the object of a territorial dispute embodying the sine qua non element for the possibility of an Israeli-Syrian peace process.
But the political vacuum of the Syrian state since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011 and the absence of a concrete diplomatic interlocutor seemingly opened an unprecedented political breach, placing the Hebrew state in a de facto position of strategic strength. As early as 2014, at a weekly council of ministers meeting held for the first time on the Golan Heights since 1967, Benyamin Netanyahu demanded “that the international community recognize reality” and “that after fifty years it finally recognizes that the Golan Heights will remain forever under Israeli sovereignty.”
Israel, it seems, had preferred to observe the first years of the Syrian civil war from the outside. Waiting and watching Israel's enemies tear each other apart and weaken even without the necessity of military intervention.
Since then, the progressive accumulation of Hezbollah forces and various Shiites and Iranian regime-affiliated militias on Syrian soil have pushed the right wing of the Israeli government to harden its discourse. The aim: to reassure part of the Israeli population about the neighboring security threat and to try to further establish the hold of the Hebrew State on a territory whose annexation is by no means recognized by the international community. There was not much convincing needed for its population since opinion polls indicated that 60 to 70 percent of Israelis refused to return the Golan Heights to Syria even if such an agreement would lead to lasting peace with Damascus. The Syrian civil war obviously seems to have strengthened the foundations of such a plebiscite.
Israel, it seems, had preferred to observe the first years of the Syrian civil war from the outside. Waiting and watching Israel's enemies tear each other apart and weaken even without the necessity of military intervention. This was the somewhat reckless credo of the Israeli General Staff regarding the Syrian crisis–a godsend now seeming long gone as Israel is in turn militarily engaged in a ‘preventive war’ not yet openly declared. There have been over a hundred airstrikes in southern Syria targeting mainly warehouses, Iranian convoys carrying Russian-made weapons to Hezbollah and the Syrian Army loyal to Bashar al-Assad.
Israel thus intends to prevent the formation of a strategic arc that would extend from Tehran to Beirut via Damascus. From this geopolitical nightmare was born a strategic reality that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu fed relentlessly during his multiple comings and goings between Moscow and Tel Aviv, as confirmed by one of his speeches to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin: “With the help of the Syrian army [the Islamic Republic] is trying to build a second front of terror against us on the Golan Heights.” He added that “Iran and Syria have armed an Islamic terrorist organization, Hezbollah, with advanced weapons.”
The honeymoon between Moscow and Tehran, often exaggerated by the media, is already on the wane because Iran is a circumstantial ally, now isolated on the international scene and becoming a liability.
This strategy seems to be fruitful for the time being because Moscow, the main mediator in the conflict, must politically transform the war efforts made since 2013 in Syria. No one wants an open war between Israel and Iran. Such a catastrophic scenario would taint Russia's will and desire to ascertain Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power. The honeymoon between Moscow and Tehran, often exaggerated by the media, is already on the wane because Iran is a circumstantial ally, now isolated on the international scene and becoming a liability.
Under the aegis of Moscow, a buffer zone some 20 kilometers wide is thus being created along the border of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel in the province of Quneitra. This long strip is a zone excluding any foreign fighters that Jordan could plan in parallel to set up in the province of Daraa. A restraint on the part of Russia, which intends to remain in control of the situation in Syria and simultaneously cool Iranian ardor. A manoeuver greatly praised by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman during a visit to Moscow alongside his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu: “The State of Israel appreciates Russia's understanding of our security fears, particularly regarding the situation on our northern border. It remains to be seen whether Iran would now easily accept binding Russian conditions after paying such a heavy price in the conflict.”
As for Russia, which seems to want to play several sides to enjoy freedom of action in Syria, Vladimir Putin does not hide the historic existence of strong ties between his country and Israel. Nor does he forget that the Hebrew state forms one of the few bridges to the United States and the Trump administration in the Middle East. The U.S. no longer minces its words about recognition of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights. For this action would, in fact, be part of an unprecedented political logic recently operated by the United States, namely the establishment of unrelenting policies whose destabilization of Iran and its Syrian ally constitutes the cornerstone of an American supremacy in the region.
In any case, the recognition of the annexation of the plateau thus remains suspended for the time being due to the volatile nature of American domestic policy. The midterm elections will determine the outcome of such a scenario, inexorably neglecting the fate of the Syrian populations of the Golan heights, almost all of whom still refuse Israeli nationality.
Clyde Vachez, from Paris France, has earned a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a Master’s degree in Geopolitics with a focus on Israel’s relationship with the Middle East.