Israel’s strategic situation took several steps back in the first week of the New Year, chiefly: The US pulled back from E. Syria under Russian threat, allowing Iran to move in.
In just one week, the dire perils, which many military and political experts warned against for years, are suddenly looming on Israel’s northern border.
From Sept.15-17, Syrian and Hizballah forces crossed the Euphrates to the eastern bank on pontoon bridges provided by Russia.
Last Saturday, Sept. 16, Russian jets bombed the US-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) in the Deir ez-Zour region, as a warning against their obstructing the eastward impetus of those Syrian and Hizballah units.
On Monday, Sept. 18, US Marines began blowing up buildings at the Zaqaf military base in eastern Syria and then retreating to the Jordanian border. The US set up Zaqaf early this year in the Syrian Desert as a barrier against this very Syrian/Hizballah crossing to impede their advance to the Syrian-Iraqi border.
The following day, on the heels of the US withdrawal, Hizballah troops took charge of the Zaqaf base.
On Wednesday, Sept. 19, the Iraqi Hashd Al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization Units – PMU) crossed into Syria and linked up with the Syrian-Hizballah force. The PMU is under the direct command of Gen. Qassam Soleimani, head of Iranian military operations in Syria and Iraq.
Iran, through its Iraqi, Lebanese and other foreign Shiite pawns, is now in control of 230km of the Syrian border, from Abu Kamal (still held by ISIS) in the north, to Al Tanf in the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border triangle in the south – where, too, US and coalition special forces have begun packing up ready to exit. Iran in recent years imported some 20,000 Afghan and Pakistani Shiite fighters to reinforce the Syrian army and Hizballah in their battles for Bashar Assad. The new Iraq arrivals boost that figure by tens of thousands and more are coming in all the time.
On Thursday, Sept. 21, the growing disconnect between Moscow and Washington over Syria suddenly erupted into an open breach with a crude threat from the Kremlin: “Russia has officially informed the United States via a special communications channel that Russian forces will strike immediately US-backed forces if they attack or shell Syrian or Russian task forces operating near the Deir Ez-Zour city. Any attempts at shelling from the areas where the militants of the Syrian Democratic Forces are based will be immediately curbed. Russian forces will suppress firing points in these areas using all means of destruction.”
A threat of this degree of ruthlessness has not been encountered in the Middle East for decades, it may recall Moscow’s threat to Israel in 1956 to end its invasion of the Sinai without delay or else…
Where do these menacing steps leave Israel?
The US has washed its hands of central and southeastern Syria.
Russia is wholly, unreservedly and openly in lockstep with the Syrian army, Iran and Hizballah in all their objectives in the war-torn country, and moreover, willing to threaten any pro-American entity with total military punishment. Is this an indirect message to Israel too? Iraqi Shiite forces are surging into Syria; they have given Tehran the gift of control of a 230km segment of the border.
And what does the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkott have to say about all this? In an interview to Israeli media as recently as Wednesday, Sept. 19, when it was all happening, he said: “If Iran does entrench itself in Syria, that will be bad news for the entire region, including the moderate Sunni camp, and even more for the countries of Europe.”
He went on to explain: “That is why we have given the Iranian threat and halting its expanding influence very high priority as an issue to be dealt with.”
Gen. Eisenkott underlined the IDF’s focus as being to prevent [Israel’s foes] from obtaining weaponry, i.e. missiles – of high targeting precision.
The trouble is that, while the IDF focuses on this objective, commendable in itself, Russia and Iran are focusing and in full flight on a far wider-ranging goal, the precise and systematic deepening of Iran’s military presence in Syria. Iran and Hizballah have already established military commands at Arnaba just 6 km from Israel’s Golan border.
Yet the IDF chief is still talking about this as an untoward event that may – or may not – come some time in the future.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani vowed to defy Western pressure and boost the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile capabilities on Friday, making the comments the same day the country demonstrated their newest missile during a military parade.
"Whether you like it or not, we are going to strengthen our military capabilities, which are necessary for deterrence," Rouhani said in his televised speech. "We will strengthen not only our missiles but also our air, land and sea forces … When it comes to defending our country, we will ask nobody for their permission."
The same day as Rouhani's speech, Tehran unveiled their new ballistic missile at a military parade commemorating the 37-year anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War that left hundreds of thousands dead. The missile is named Khorramshahr after the Iranian city where the first major engagement of the war occurred.
"The Khorramshahr missile has a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) and can carry multiple warheads," said Iranian Revolutionary Guard aerospace chief General Amir Ali Hajizadeh to the state-owned Islamic Republic News Agency.
Tillerson also referred to the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, as well as the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine. Iran has made its presence known in all three conflicts.
During his speech, Rouhani ruled out any change in foreign policy. "Whether you like it or not, we are going to defend the oppressed peoples of Yemen, Palestine and Syria," he said.