Professor Uzi Rabi is the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is regularly invited by the Israeli Knesset to deliver updates on current developments in the Middle East and Iran. His fields of specialization include Iranian-Arab relations and Sunni-Shi’ia tensions. Osservatorio Mashrek has interviewed him about the current situation in Syria and the role of Iran and Russia in the country, the growing Hezbollah’s military threat in the Golan Heights, the future scenario in the region. (By Nino Orto)
As the Syrian Civil War enters a new phase, what is happening inside the country could affect the whole region and, in particular, Israel. With the increased presence of Iran and Hezbollah in Golan Heights, Israeli’s concerns for the territory on its border with Syria are rising. In the past few weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned the Russian President, Vladimir Putin that Israel is ready to intervene in Syria to counteract the growing Iranian influence in the country, setting out Israel’s red lines against Iran establishing a permanent, expanded military presence in Syria. The Israeli government also stated that the Syrian regime will be responsible for any strikes inside its territory. However, President Assad’s regime and his allies (Iran and Hezbollah) are determined to retake positions occupied by the Syrian rebels near the Golan Heights and have increased Israeli concerns that Damascus could control regain the territory bordering the Golan Heights.
The Syrian regime has survived the civil war. What does this mean?
ISIS and the rebels are out and the most of the strongholds of the jihādist and rebels groups in Syria are being taken out by Russia, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army. The problem is that those who did the job to demolish ISIS, the United States, have left only accomplished half the task and the credit was taken by others geopolitical actors like Russia. We have a vacuum in the region, not just Syria, and it is being filled by Iran. There are two main things that are becoming problematic for Israel: the first are the great Shi’a crescent, which stretches from Tehran to the beaches of the Mediterranean in Lebanon. The second is the little arch which crosses from Lebanon to the Golan Heights. These two issues are challenges that Israel have to prevent.
What is happening in Syria and Iraq?
What happened is that the Americans are being indifferent because they are dealing with North Korea and left Syria to Russia without taking account of Israeli interests. President Putin is not hostile to Israel, however he does not have any reasons to prefer Israel to Iran. What is happening is that all the agreements about Syria excluded Israel and its interests in the region. If you ask me why Israel attacked Syrian facilities in the previous weeks it is because the Israelis are saying “here we are”. If regional and global actors choose to ignore our interests, this is a reminder. Nonetheless there no eventuality where Israel will be ignored. The strike against Syrian facilities is proof of that, even if Russian forces are just fifty miles from the Israeli border. The United States’ is too busy in other parts of the world so Israel will have to resolve these problems alone. That is the goal. This is not an asymmetric conflict. Hezbollah and Iran have to understand that Israel will not stay silent. The Middle East is like a bazar: if you do not do anything it means you accept the reality.
What will become of the Golan Heights?
The Golan Heights on the Syrian side has become a security perimeter. We will not give up on that because Hezbollah and Iran can push on this side. There are eight to twenty Sunni villages along this perimeter that can became a fence zone against Israel. We know that these Sunni villages prefer have the Israeli influence as supposed to Shi’a militias in their territory. Realistically, no one can know what will happen. This is not a situation Israel can deal with by itself, the country requires the international support of the United Nations. However, if we keep getting mad about Iran and the international community continue to stay silent, we then should move to the territory to create a buffer zone in this belt.
What is the Israeli position on the jihādist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham?
Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is an organisation which we cannot cooperate with in the long term. You can have an ad-hoc agreement here and there, but it won’t last much longer. We have to create an agreement with the Sunni population who are looking with growing concerns to the advance of Hezbollah and Syrian forces towards Golan. We have to concentrate political and diplomatic efforts with the U.S and Arab states as we have a growing presence of forces who are under Iranian influence across the region.
What sort of shape would this alliance with the Arab states take?
It wouldn’t be an alliance, but an agreement. We have a fruitful alliance with the government of Egypt as we have never had before (I’m talking about the government not people of course). To have the peace we have to re-educate the people, something which is impossible in the Middle East. I’m talking about functional alliance. If your enemy is my enemy, we can collaborate. We have to stop Iran. If you can offer to a country such as Saudi Arabia to stop Iran not only in the Golan Heights but also in Raqqa, Deir al Ezzor, and even south-West Iraq they will accept.
What is the scenario for the next two years?
It depends on the United States and Arab states. The Sunni states are suffering because of the spread of the Iranian regime. After the Arab Revolutions mutated into violence, you can’t deal with a monster. Israel cannot tolerate any danger on its border in the Golan Heights and will not tolerate any interference. The United States is going to have a bitter period with Iran.
What is the worst case scenario for Israel?
For Israel, Iran is not only providing weapons to Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon but Iran-Hezbollah forces will take control of Golan Heights by creating an extension with the border of Israel. Also taking into the account that Hamas was meeting in Beirut in order to create a new axe for a political wing of Hamas in Beirut. This is Iranian modus operandi. We are in trouble.
Hezbollah is becoming an army itself. Russia is here and will not leave. They are not able to convince the Iranians to pull out. There is always the presence of ISIS to provide an excuse for Iran to stay there. Iran will go nuclear. We know it. Even if is not imminent because they have many economic benefits to stay in this agreement. Iran is developing missile programs, we know it and this is outside of the agreement. Iran is becoming present in all the places: Afganistan and Yemen as well. This is the picture. The Syrian rebels and ISIS are potent but they are not able to affect the balance of power in the region.
Why Is Iran so dangerous for the balance of power in Middle East?
The international community has gravely underestimated Iran, Europe doesn’t understand what the Middle East is. We have to be smart like the Iranians are. We have to be tough, even nasty. This is the only way you can deal with the Iranians. If you come up with peace agreement they are going to beat you. The Iranians have invaded Middle East with soft penetration. They are very vicious, very clever and should not be underestimated.
This is a kind of challenge we have never experienced, and it is a real challenge. However, history is on our side. In 1994 Bill Clinton said “North Korea won’t be nuclear” and look what happened. Barack Obama has promised that Iran will not be nuclear. Look at what is going on. If someone is coming up with an agreement they should understand that they will buy some peace of mind for the short term but it will have a high price in the medium or long term. Of course, this is not what I think. I think that Iran should have been hit twenty years ago, thank goodness we did it in 1991 in Iraq. I do not know what is going on in the world, but I know that if there is a vacuum in the Middle East Iran will take it.
What is Israel's position on Russia?
We have to talk with Russia about our red line; 1) Don’t let them (Hezbollah and Iran) have Golan Heights 2) No transfer of weaponry to Hamas from Hezbollah 3) No transfer of weaponry from industries created by Iran in Lebanon to Hezbollah. We can’t have it all of course. Russia is not an enemy but they are very cynical and ambitious in Syria.
We will not stand in their way but they do not have to stand in our. We have to be smart in order to be part of what is happening. However for Israel, the problem is that the interests of the country don’t correspond with the Russian agenda so in that case what we have to do is just talk to them. We have different agendas but we have to be sure that we will not collide with each others interests.
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