Thursday, 21 November 2013

Does whoever wins in Syria means Israel loses?

When the House of Commons voted against the possibility of military action in Syria on August 29, the Israeli public and politicians were angry.

Not just because it seemed Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people was going unpunished, but because of concerns the West was setting a precedent over Iran.

As f this is how the world acts when some 1,429 people are gassed, how should we expect them to act if Iran just crosses the nuclear threshold, but doesn't kill anybody yet?”

It is difficult to overstate Israel’s concern over Iran, and in particular its attempts to develop a nuclear weapon.

The international community has criticised Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, and the United Nations, US, EU and other countries including Japan and South Korea have all imposed trade sanctions against Iran, which has led to a collapse in its economy.

But following the election of of Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency in July 2013, there has been a change in rhetoric from the country in its attitude to the West.

Earlier this month the UN and EU held talks with Iran in Geneva to try and dissuade the administration from continuing its nuclear plans.

Although no agreement was reached, Israel believes any sign of easing the economic sanctions against Iran will play into the hands of Iranian hard liners.

A senior diplomatic source told me Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu felt betrayed by the EU and US negotiations with Iran.

The argument goes that if Rouhani is able to get sanctions eased without having to make any meaningful concessions, moderate voices in Iran will be undermined. Why turn back from nuclear development if the West is going to relax sanctions anyway?

A senior Israeli official told me Netanyahu believes the talks are being conducted under a “false dichotomy” as Rouhani has neither the intention nor authority to halt Iran’s nuclear plans.

The official also said Israel’s prime minister was “very concerned” about the Geneva deal.

So how does all this affect Israel’s view on Syria?

Assad is no friend of Israel, but as recently as 2006 he told an American journalist he was supportive of a cold peace between the two countries.

But the fact remains Assad is being kept in power in Syria thanks to the support of Hezbollah – an organisation based in south Lebanon which had its military wing added to the EU list of terrorist groups this summer.

Hezbollah – founded in 1982 – is fundamentally anti-Israel, and the last time the two actors clashed was in 2006, leading to the second Lebanon war.

Since then, military officials in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) estimate Hezbollah has acquired 200,000 rockets, making them militarily stronger than seven years ago.

It is believed the range of these rockets mean anywhere in Israel is vulnerable to attack.

Funding for the organisation comes mainly from Iran, which is estimated to pump approximately $200million a year into Hezbollah.

At the Israel-Lebanon border. Despite appearances I do have arms.

I went to Israel’s border with Lebanon, and from my vantage point was able to see villages, farm buildings and warehouses – many of which I was assured contained Hezbollah weaponry, including rockets.

A source in the IDF told me that when the international community was debating bombing Syria, munitions were seen being brought back from the country to Hezbollah’s base in southern Lebanon.

All this led to one IDF officer fearing it was not a case of “if, but when” Hezbollah launches an attack on Israel.

“It will be a black day for both countries,” he said, adding a humanitarian crisis would likely follow any fighting.

If Hezbollah is backed by an Iranian regime with a nuclear weapon, it may feel it can be more aggressive towards Israel.

But the alternative in Syria may not be much better.

The anti-Assad opposition are divided, and while there are moderate elements, there are also groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra – an internationally-recognised Jihadist group with links to Al Qaeda in Iraq.

If they were to seize control from Assad then there is the possibility of Syria turning into a fundamentalist Islamic state – hardly what Israel would like on its doorstep.

Overlooking Syria from the Golan Heights, I could see a village loyal to Assad surrounded by rebel-controlled settlements.

I was told by an IDF source the Assad-supporting villages had resisted attacks for now, but another rebel-led raid was on the horizon, and this time there would most likely be a “fight to the death” from the men in the village.

In public Israel is not supporting one side or the other, but in private it is clear a Syria not controlled by Iran is more palatable than a Tehran-backed administration.

At the beginning of the month, American news agencies reported that a White House official had confirmed Israel had launched air strikes against targets in Syria believed to be storing weapons for Hezbollah.

The Israeli government was furious with the leak, as it fears such statements could provoke a response from Assad, especially if pressured by Hezbollah or Iran.

And with 200,000 rockets capable of striking Israel from Haifa in the north to the Negev desert in the south, it is no wonder why Israel is concerned about a more confident Hezbollah.

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