Zainab Masri / Saleh Malas / Abdullah al-Khatib
Wearing the Syrian army’s uniform, and in the presence of the Russian military police, and after graduating from a military course that includes about a thousand elements, members of the “Eighth Brigade” chanted, under the banner of the “5th Corps” in the city of Bosra in Daraa, “Long live Syria… Down with Bashar al-Assad… Syria is Free, free, Bashar go out!” The scene summarizes the complexity of the Syrian file, which is witnessing frequent tension and escalation between a triangle whose sides are drawn by Russia, Israel, and Iran.
Amid the atmosphere of mutual threats in the southern border region of Syria, the hypothesis of another war is back to the fore due to several reasons. First of all. the prevailing circumstances are offering pretexts similar to those that led to the “war of July 2006.” Moreover, Israeli is concerned about the Iranian presence in southern Syria. Plus, new international actors get involved in the conflict, with different data, most prominent of which is Russia.
In this file, Enab Baladi, jointly with a group of researchers and military experts, discusses the possibility of a direct military confrontation between the actors amid the escalation and military tensions in Syria’s southern border region.
Elements of the security scene in the south
Probability of alert development into a battle
Due to several factors, the southern border region in Syria has turned into an arena of international conflict, and elements and international parties have drawn with their agreements and actions a tense security scene.
The Iran-backed Hezbollah enjoys significant influence in southern Syria and Lebanon (on the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan and Palestine), which Russia is trying to curb under an agreement with Israel signed in May 2018. Under this agreement, Israel supported the Syrian regime to control the southern border with the Golan.
The scene of the region reflects the scale of the military tensions; the Israeli army targeted, on 23 July, military sites near the vicinity of “Damascus International Airport” with airstrikes, during which the member of the Lebanese “Hezbollah” Ali Kamel Mohsen was killed. The Israeli side strengthened its borders with Syria and Lebanon on the same day, according to television channel “Canal 13”.
Afterward, a series of skirmishes and sporadic shelling between the two sides, Israeli and Syrian, continued until they developed to include the Lebanese side, which witnessed an attempt to infiltrate from the Lebanese territories into the borders of Israel. But, Hezbollah denied this, and Israel considered it as “playing with fire.”
The Israeli army targeted people it said were Hezbollah members, on 27 July. They entered a few meters to an “Israeli sovereign” area, in the Jabal Ross area in Lebanon, and Israel accused them of “carrying out a planned sabotage operation.”
Hezbollah fired a missile that targeted Chebaa farms (occupied, on the Syrian-Lebanese border). In contrast, Israeli missiles targeted the town of Kfarchouba and the area around the Ruwaysat al-Alam in southern Lebanon.
Threats were heightened, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, said that their forces’ response to Hezbollah’s attacks would be “very severe,” amidst the strengthening of the military forces on the Syrian and Lebanese borders, to avoid any “revenge attack” of the party.
These statements opened assumptions of a direct confrontation between the Israeli side on the one hand and Hezbollah, with the support of the Syrian regime and Iran on the other hand, in the southern border region of Syria, before the assumptions in this regard were discarded after the party’s deputy Secretary-General, Naim Qassem, excluded the possibility of war with Israel in the coming months.
The expert in military and strategic affairs, Colonel Ismail Ayoub, in an interview with Enab Baladi, said that this tension in the border is almost fake and already agreed upon between “Hezbollah” and Israel, and the parties have an interest in it.
This is because Israel wants to demonstrate to the Israeli public that their government will not allow any aggression, even if it is a simple response by Hezbollah, meaning that Israel is attempting to achieve more political than military investment.
There is also an intention by Hezbollah to demonstrate its ability, in front of its supporters, to respond to the killing of any of its elements, even if it is in Syria, especially since the party’s popularity has “collapsed” in Lebanon because of its “terrorist” acts in Syria and its control over Lebanon.
Internal crises discourage the outbreak of a new crisis
By going back few steps to the past events, the Israeli army published a record on 10 April, showing the presence of military leaders from the Syrian regime and “Hezbollah” in the Syrian part of the occupied Golan Heights.
The video, released by the Israeli army spokesperson, Avichay Adraee, shows, at the time, the commander of the “Corps I” in the Syrian regime forces, Major General Ali Ahmed Asaad, accompanied by the commander of the Southern Command in Hezbollah, Hajj Hashem.
Adraee said that Asaad had taken a tour that included moving between sites known to be used by Hezbollah, accompanied by Hashem.
“Hezbollah” is seeking to position itself in Syria in general and in the Syrian Golan Heights in particular, “to create a terrorist entity against Israel with the cooperation and support of the Syrian regime,” according to Adraee.
The statement revealed that the talk about the withdrawal of pro-Iranian militias from Syria is inaccurate, with the support of Russia. Still, it is instead a matter of repositioning and spreading themselves in southern Syria, Nawar Shaaban, the military affairs researcher and director of the information unit at the “Omran Studies Center” highlighted in an interview with Enab Baladi. He added that the ongoing military skirmish falls under the principle of “stabilizing control positions through showing off and displaying power.”
However, currently, there is no place for a direct military operation between the regional parties in the zone to anticipate the outbreak of a battle or direct war, according to Shaaban after analyzing the evolution of events in the last few days, as all the internal crises are accumulating and becoming more complicated at the same time, which prevents an escalation in the actual military conflict.
“Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and the Syrian regime are all facing economic crises and corruption problems.” This prevents any military skirmish from developing into a huge battle, according to Shaaban. The clashes that have occurred since the “settlement” agreement in southern Syria in 2018 and up to now are “local confrontation with an international dimension.”
This international conflict triggered by the local parties will lead one party to tighten its military and security control over the southern region of Syria, but this conflict is being translated into local arrests and killings in the south.
Currently, Russia is on the verge of ensuring a security and military stranglehold in the south to its benefit along with Israel, according to researcher Nawar Shaaban.
Russian interests far from the war scenario
In 2018, Russia proposed a “settlement” in Daraa and Quneitra after a military build-up, which was accepted by most of the Syrian opposition factions in the south. Russia took advantage of these “factions,” known after that as the “settlement factions,” in line with the handing over of the southern border crossing points to government forces, in order to avoid the creation of a security vacuum that would be occupied by pro-Iranian militias, according to Shaaban.
Russia has positioned the “settlement factions,” the most important member of which is Ahmed al-Awda, the “Eighth Brigade” and a member of the Russian-led “Fifth Legion” at Daraa, in the border military units, preventing Iranian militias from approaching the border with Israel.
In the same year, Russian forces sought to have the last word regarding Israel’s border region by reaching an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to expel Iran and “Hezbollah” from southern Syria.
Moscow is trying to ensure the success of the “settlement” experience in Daraa governorate before the international community so as to return the displaced to their homeland under the supervision of its security authority, according to Shaaban. Converting any military escalation into a regional battle between Iran, Hezbollah, the regime and Israel will not be in the interest of Russia, which is coordinating with Israel to decrease the Iranian presence in southern Syria.
Israeli analyst and Arab affairs specialist Ehud Yaari said, in an article published by the Israeli “Channel 12,” that “Putin does not want the Golan to become a burning battlefield, and therefore he wants his soldiers and officers, the majority of whom are Caucasian Muslims, to take control over the region on the Syrian side, in cooperation with local forces that are explicitly hostile to both Iran and the regime.
However, another group of Enab Baladi readers has a different opinion on the subject. An opinion poll conducted by Enab Baladi on its official Facebook page showed that 82% out of 251 voters believe that the actors in southern Syria have an interest in starting the war, while the remaining percentage sees the opposite. Voters in favor of a probable war believe that the war will aim at “winning the trust of the people and restoring the prestige that no longer exists.”
Iran’s mechanism to maintain a presence in the south
According to Nawar Shaaban, Iran relies on its arms in southern Syria to evade any direct military confrontation with Israel, while trying to impose its presence with the help of the regime’s military security forces and “Brigade 313,” which is an Iranian faction affiliated to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), with local militants fighting in its ranks.
Shaaban explained that Iran is utilizing an explicit mechanism in the context of its confrontation with Israel and attempts simultaneously to establish its presence in the southern region by controlling military commanders and local formations that play a fundamental role in the army and the regime’s security forces.
On the other hand, Tehran is able to supervise Daraa’s eastern Badia from the side of As-Suwayda governorate, in case any military tension occurs outside Iran’s control, as ISIS elements can infiltrate from this region and cause security problems, whether in As-Suwayda or Daraa governorates. This security arrangement is part of Tehran’s mechanism to confront any possible military escalation, according to Shaaban.
A reality different from the 2006 Lebanon War
With the outbreak of skirmishes on the occupied borders of Syria and Lebanon, political and military analysts predicted a summer similar to the July 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah, which began with capturing soldiers from both sides.
Shaaban stated that the spread of the coronavirus pandemic has caused unconventional health conditions that prevented the initiation of any military confrontation worldwide, especially in a region that suffers from increased proliferation of infections like Syria, noting that the 2006 war scenario is unlikely to happen again.
The military expert added that the thorny health condition in the region hinders any endeavor from prevailing the Syrian southern border through direct confrontations, as soldiers, and elements of the military factions and militias might be exposed to the risk of infection, which will lead to the propagation of the virus among civilians as well.
Iran, Lebanon, and the Syrian regime are suffering from economic crises that prevent them from facing Israel, which in turn witnessed mass protests in the city of Tel Aviv (Jaffa), last July, against Netanyahu’s policies in handling the economic recession caused by the pandemic.
Iran under U.S-Israel pressure
The tension in southern Syria and Lebanon is linked to the situation in Iran, with the recent outbreak of several explosions and fires whose perpetrators, whether incited by Israel or Washington, are still unidentified.
Iran believes that the explosion that occurred at the Natanz nuclear facility is a sabotage attempt behind which the US or oppositionist groups stand, as Head of Iran’s Civil Defense Organization Brigadier General Gholamreza Jalali, said on 4 July that Tehran does not rule out that the explosion of the nuclear plant is an act of vandalism launched “by opposition groups, or a cyber-attack led by the US administration that stood behind similar incidents that occurred recently in Iran.”
Following the statements of the Iranian official, The New York Times quoted a Middle East intelligence official and a member of the IRGC as saying that there is a new hypothesis based on the possibility that a bomb has been planted inside the Natanz nuclear facility. However, the source did not rule out that Israel might be responsible for the attack.
According to the newspaper, Israeli intelligence had already demonstrated its ability to strike sensitive sites in Iran. In 2018, Israeli agents stormed a warehouse in Tehran, stole half a ton of secret records documenting the Iranian nuclear project, and then managed to smuggle classified documents from the country.
However, Israel has denied responsibility for the Natanz attack, according to statements by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, and the Foreign Minister, Gabi Ashkenazi.
Bombings in Iran have increased in July, the most recent of which was the explosion that took place in the city of Daulatabad in the region of Kermanshah, west of the country, on the 28th of the same month.
Back then, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) published on Twitter a video showing the burning of six fuel trucks in a parking garage, with no casualties. At the same time, several people were injured, according to the agency.
The tension inside Iran reached its peak while Iranian fighters roamed the Syrian air space. On 23 July, US F-15 jets intercepted an Iranian plane belonging to Mahan Air over Al-Tanf base in Homs countryside controlled by the international coalition forces, which made Iran file a complaint to the UN Security Council, through its Permanent Representative of Iran to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi.
Russian arms to control south
Israel has been escalating against Iran for a while, as the Israeli authorities are trying, in cooperation with Russia, the Syrian regime’s ally, to prevent Bashar al-Assad and Iranian military forces from entirely controlling the Syrian south.
In May 2018, Russia reached an understanding with Israel stipulating the reduction of Iran’s role and the removal of its forces from Syria. However, both parties did not agree on the timing as Israel demanded Iran’s immediate exit from Syrian territory, while Russia believed that removing the Iranian forces needed time and further arrangements. Therefore, the Russian side suggested the partial expulsion of Iranian forces from southern Syria.
The understanding stipulated that Iran withdraws 20 kilometers from the border area. However, Israel demanded a gradual withdrawal to expand the distance from 60 to 70 kilometers, in an area that extends from Majdal Shams to a little beyond Damascus, and from the common border with Jordan (south) to As-Suwayda.
Through the agreement, Russia gave the green light to Israel to carry out limited military operations in Syria in the event of detecting severe security threats, provided that this does not affect the capabilities of the Syrian regime while refraining from targeting the regime’s sites.
Likewise, the settlement agreement, signed in July 2018, with Russia as its guarantor, did not allow the Syrian regime to extend its influence over the entire regions of the south, and several areas remained outside al-Assad’s control.
5th Corps’s role in confrontations
The Russia-backed 5th Corps is expanding its influence in southern Syria, as Moscow tries to grant its extensive powers to maintain security in its areas of control, limit Iran’s expansion and prevent the Syrian regime forces from further penetrating the region.
While the 5th Corps would play a role, determined by Russia away from the Syrian regime, in the ongoing confrontations in the south or the Latakia mountains, it will not participate in any military clashes that could result from the recent security tension taking place in the southern border region, because this military formation is affiliated to Russia, which is concerned with Israel’s security, according to the expert in military and strategic affairs, Colonel Ismail Ayoub.
Regarding this faction’s role in removing Iran from the region, Colonel Ayoub said that although the 5th Corps is a Russian card, there is as yet no indication of any potential participation of the factions in combating the Iranian presence, especially since Russia and Iran are still allies in Syria.
But if necessary, and according to the influencing political contexts in Syria, the battalion could have a future role if the parties to the conflict needed to exclude Iran, especially in the southern regions adjacent to the occupied Golan, added Ayoub, indicating that Iran’s presence there can only be maintained via an accord between the US, Russia, and Israel.
Ayoub asserted that it is possible to use the formations of the 5th Corps to push the Iranian forces from the south or throughout Syria if Iran insists on staying.
The military expert believed that Russia has fulfilled its pledge to exclude Iranian-backed militias from the borders of the Occupied Golan. However, Iran is evading the Russians’ grip by including its elements in the ranks of the regime’s brigades and factions so that they can obtain Syrian identity papers and military uniforms. The presence of Iranian elements within the regime forces would allow them to carry out their security activities, and establish monitoring and spying centers and other preparations for any future military action.
Ayoub conveyed that the Russians and the Israelis are not entirely unaware of these actions. In the event that a militia engages in any security action, the consequences will be severe for the Iranians and the regime forces as well.
Syrian media expert and political researcher, Nasr Al-Yousef, considered that Israel is making serious moves against the Iranian presence in Syria this time, because Iranian and Israeli projects have opposing purposes, and not for the sake of liberating the Syrian people from Iran’s control.
Consequently, the Iranian presence on the Israeli borders constitutes a significant threat, as Israel does not wish to surround itself by militias from the adjacent areas (Syria and Lebanon).
On the content of the recent messages, including the interception of a Mahan Airplane by two US fighters, on 24 July, and the intensification of the Israeli bombing of Iranian sites in Syria, Nasr al-Yousef said, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that these moves indicate a real desire and determination to cut off Iran’s arms in the region and “trim its nails”.
Al-Yousef cited that the Mahan Air has always transferred Afghani and Iranian fighters as well as weapons to Syria, which the Americans tried to stop by destroying the plane, as mentioned earlier. The US also believes that the flow of Iranian mercenaries to Syria will continue because if Iran loses Syria, it will lose all the sites and control centers it worked on establishing in the region in the past four decades.
Iran responds to Israel with “political fanfare”
Al-Yousef indicated that Iran has a sole card to play vis à vis the ongoing military escalation, which is a political fanfare based on empty threats that do not affect the ground, except for some provocative actions here and there.
The researcher cited the Iranian position after the assassination of the IRGC’s prominent leader and commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, on 3 January, in an air raid that targeted his motorcade in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad after returning from Syria.
Al-Yousef continued: “When the US liquidated Soleimani, loud Iranian voices vowed to revenge him and threatened the Americans with a frightening retaliation, but what happened on the ground?”
The Iranians are trying to avoid any confrontation with the US while extending some provocative actions towards the Americans and the Israelis to trick the “naive” Arabs to think that Iran is high power and a worthy opponent of these two countries, that will continue and seek to liberate Palestine from the river to the sea, as Al-Yousef put it.
Israeli-American strategy facing Iran
Al-Yousef confirmed that the only thing that matters to the United States in the Middle East is the security of Israel, considering that the US once viewed the Gulf States as an essential ally and significant source of energy, but not anymore.
He pointed out that “the US and Western countries can manage without the Gulf’s oil completely, as the US oil production reached a peak. According to statistics issued last July, the US produces more than 11 million barrels per day, in addition to its natural gas reserve and intensive gas extraction from shale.”
So when an enemy, such as Hezbollah or other parties, announces its intention to remove Israel from existence and manages to demonstrate such endeavor on the ground, the United States will seek to protect the Zionist entity by removing Iran from the adjacent borders, and from Syria in the long term.
How do they set their priorities?
Russia is the biggest winner
Russia undertook the task of supervising the moves made by Israel, Iran, and the Syrian regime on Syria’s southern border, focusing on Israel’s security in the first place, for several reasons, which Al-Yousef summarized.
The military expert stated that 20 percent of Israeli citizens are of Russian origin and hold Russian citizenship, in addition to the presence of Jewish personalities among Putin’s entourage, most notably the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, who are considered among the most influential businessmen, on whom the Russian president depend on carrying out strategic business activities.
Putin’s friendship with the Rotenberg’s dates back to school days in the city of Leningrad (currently referred to as St. Petersburg). Thus, the companies owned by the two businessmen are responsible for implementing the majority of the state’s infrastructure projects, the most prominent of which is the bridge that connects the Russian mainland with the Crimea, which Russia cut off from Ukraine in 2014.
Al-Yousef considered that the two brothers, along with billionaire Roman Abramovich (owner of the English football club Chelsea, and one of Russia’s oil, aluminum, and steel emperors, who is also close to Putin), influence Russia’s decision-making process.
As for the Russian policy to handle the situation in Syria, Putin chose to use the Syrian conflict as a card to trade with the West in order to exchange certain positions. Hence, when the Israelis ask for Russia’s help to push the Iranians out, they will receive a positive response immediately, according to Al-Yousef, who justified his opinion saying: “We saw Israeli planes roaming in the Syrian air space at all times, striking wherever they wanted without any Russian interference.”
The researcher affirmed that the Russian silence on the Israeli bombing constitutes an explicit approval of this demarche; otherwise, the Israelis would not be able to hit those sites or advance even one centimeter into the Syrian territory.
On the other hand, the Russians will be happy with any military escalation between Israel and Iran, because they will feel that the two sides need them to supervise the situation, according to Al-Yousef.
This means that when Iran is targeted or threatened by the Israelis, it will ask the Russians to reach an understanding with them to reduce the severity of the offensive. Equally, Israel will also need Russia’s approval to launch every strike.
This escalation will grant Russia the role of the “traffic cop” who is tasked with settling differences between the two parties, and the weaker the Iranian influence in Syria gets, the stronger Russia will become. In this direction, Al-Yousef sees that the Russians do not need the Iranians any longer in Syria, with the end of battles backed by Iran on the ground and covered by the Russian forces from the air.
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