Donald Trump needs to stop prevaricating over Syria and take advantage of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Syria failures.
Putin, who unexpectedly thrust Russia into the Syria civil war in September 2015, initially claimed he was there on a counterterrorism mission to fight the Islamic State. Fast-forward two and a half years, and Putin is now in the unlikely position of trying to contain the outbreak of what could be the ugliest Middle East war of the 21st century between Iran and Israel.
It was all very predictable, the moment that Putin began to partner with Iran and its lethal proxy, Hezbollah. They shared intelligence, patrolled together and fought together against the Sunni jihadists and other rebels who were warring against the Assad regime.
Iran’s motivations for this unlikely marriage were crystal clear: the regime viewed Syria as a crucial territory to maintain a land bridge from their borders to the Mediterranean. For Iran, Syria was key to regional domination. It was also key to maintaining military supply routes to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Russia, by contrast, had more global ambitions. For one, Putin was putting a finger in the eye of the Obama administration. The message was that Russia could dominate territory once seen as under American influence. Putin also sought to convey to the rest of the Arab world that Russia was a strong and reliable ally for the region, and that Russia was willing to provide advanced weaponry at the right price—and without American-style red tape and oversight.
Putin’s assertion of power was quickly acknowledged by Israelis, who began to pay regular visits to Moscow, during which they raised their concerns about the growing Iranian presence in Syria as well as the military hardware and Shi’ite militias that Tehran deployed there to shore up a wobbly Assad regime. They warned that Iran was preparing new military infrastructure to target Israel.
As Israeli officials explain, the visits did not include requests to strike at Iranian and Hezbollah targets. Rather, the Israelis simply declared their intent to strike these targets. A line of communication was opened, and has remained open as Israel has conducted more than 100 strikes on Iranian strikes in Syria. Israel never took responsibility for these attacks, and Russia never acknowledged them. The Kremlin seemed to think that it could play both sides against one another while it remained in Syria under the pretense of a counterterrorism mission.
But that collapsed on February 9, when Iran dispatched a drone into Israeli airspace from the T4 air base west of Palmyra. The Israelis responded by sending eight F-16 fighter jets into Syria to destroy the base as well as a number of anti-aircraft batteries. The attack reportedly came without warning for Russia.
From the Israeli perspective, the air strikes sent two important messages. First, it was a sharp warning to Iran for violating its airspace. And second, by striking deep inside Syria, the Israelis also conveyed that they could operate inside the country with relative impunity (they lost one fighter jet in the skirmish). Iran now understood that Russia could not necessarily protect their assets inside the country.
Over the ensuing two months, an uneasy quiet prevailed between Israel and Iran.
Of course, the rest of Syria was not quiet. The Assad regime’s savagery has continued unabated and the international community has done nothing in response, even as the U.S.-led international coalition hammers the ever-shrinking caliphate of the Islamic State. The mess in Syria has been punctuated by Trump’s recent vow to withdraw entirely from Syria “very soon.”
For the Israelis, Trump’s statement was both alarming and clarifying. Iran’s military project was about to expand exponentially. And without the implied protection from its most powerful ally, Israel’s war planners apparently felt empowered to take matters into their own hands.
That’s exactly what Israel did on Sunday night. The T4 air base was once again the target. Once again, Russia appears to have been left out of the loop. And it also appears that their air defenses were insufficient to prevent a strike on the Iranian air base.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized the Israelis on Monday, calling the strike “a dangerous development.” Lavrov is right about that. The Israelis have shown that they can operate repeatedly inside of Syria, with or without Russian deconfliction. And with Trump signaling outrage over Sunday’s chemical weapons attacks in Damascus, the United States is not likely to restrain the Israelis from protecting their interests.
Putin is now sitting on a tinderbox. The ISIS threat may be contained. But a showdown is looming between Israel and Iran on Russia-controlled terrain. With Iran’s long record of sponsoring terrorist groups that target Israel, coupled with regular calls for destruction of the state of Israel, this has been a long time coming. Iran’s Syrian and Lebanese proxies, who are armed to the teeth with up to 250,000 rockets, are preparing to battle the most advanced military in the Middle East. It promises to be the worst war the region has seen in decades.
Putin could certainly try to step in and referee this conflict. But that’s not what he signed up for. Between this and the chemical weapons attacks, the Russian leader may finally coming to understand that Iran’s actions in Syria are not aligned with Russian interests.
This is long-sought leverage for Trump, in a conflict that has afforded little. More importantly, it’s a window of opportunity to finally craft a Syria policy that works to marginalize both Russia and Iran – the main drivers of a mass slaughter that stretches into its seventh year.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism-finance analyst for the US Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JSchanzer.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.