As the Syrian conflict gradually winds down it is becoming easier to identify the winners and the losers. At a global level the conflict is seen widely as a big win for Russia, and by extension a loss for the United States.
However, despite their significant differences, Russia and the US have established an uneasy accommodation in Syria, as demonstrated by a succession of local ceasefire deals. The same logic applies to Turkey and Iran, two major regional powers which are setting aside their differences to focus on the bigger picture in post-conflict Syria.
However, there is one clear loser in the conflict which is unable to reach an accommodation with its regional foes: Israel. The Zionist state has failed to achieve its core objective, namely to weaken the Syrian state by what it deems to be a sufficient degree.
On the contrary, the Syrian government is increasingly strident and confident of its victory. By extension, the so-called “Axis of Resistance” – the regional alliance led by Iran – has had a shot in the arm, as evidenced by Lebanese Hezbollah’s growing regional clout.
This outcome has increased tensions significantly between Hezbollah and Israel, as demonstrated by frequent Israeli air strikes on alleged Hezbollah-related targets inside Syria. These strikes are a harbinger of what may be just around the corner, namely a major war initiated by Israel to redress the balance of power.
Unlike some Western powers, Israel did not want Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to be overthrown, just sufficiently battered and permanently embattled. As part of this policy Israel has extended significant support to some Syrian rebel groups, particularly in Quneitra province close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
This support, though, does not necessarily constitute sympathy for the rebels’ ultimate aim, notably the overthrow of Assad, if not the Syrian government in its entirety. Israel does not trust Syrian rebels and its attitude toward the president is informed by the old adage of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.
At the strategic level, Israel has made two major miscalculations. First and foremost, it failed to anticipate Russia’s forceful entry into the war in late September 2015. The Russian air force rolled back rebel gains and the wider Russian presence in Syria signalled a firm determination to maintain the political status quo. This placed Israel at a disadvantage in so far as it enabled the Syrian government to go on the offensive against its armed enemies.
Second, Israel underestimated the extent of Iran’s ability to influence the outcome of the conflict. This miscalculation centres on capability as opposed to motivation, as the Israelis were under no illusions that Iran is committed wholeheartedly to the current regime in Damascus. Israeli intelligence and defence chiefs also underestimated Iran’s military and intelligence prowess, particularly the latter’s ability to mastermind a highly effective multinational paramilitary force in Syria dominated by Shia Afghani fighters.
Whilst Iran’s human losses in Syria are considerable, in terms of what has been at stake – namely its ability to project decisive influence in the Levant region – these losses are more than tolerable. Furthermore, the blood spilt in Syria means that Iran is more than ever determined to safeguard its investment by keeping a substantial military force in the country on a long-term basis. This outcome is simply intolerable for the Israelis.
In the past 35 years, beginning with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, the cycle of conflict between the Zionist state and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah has undergone several distinct phases, marked by short periods of sharp escalation and a much longer period of uneasy peace. The former has occurred roughly every ten years, as demonstrated by the sixteen-day Grapes of Wrath operation in April 1996 and the longer and more intense war of summer 2006.
Israel is understood widely to have lost the 2006 war, at least in terms of asymmetric warfare, an outcome that has had a decisive influence in containing Israeli aggression towards Lebanon. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah goes beyond the region and has a truly global dimension. Both sides spy on each other around the world, a fierce intelligence war that occasionally escalates into the assassination of Hezbollah commanders and alleged bombings in retaliation.
In terms of the next major conflict, there are two factors that weigh heavily on Israeli strategists. First is the psychological requirement to exorcise the ghosts of 2006 and restore – albeit partially – Israel’s image of military invincibility. Second, there is a growing realisation that Israel’s containment strategy is failing to stem Hezbollah’s military capability, which reportedly includes an arsenal of 120,000 rockets.
Whilst unable to influence the course of the Syrian conflict at a strategic level, at tactical and operational levels Israel has conducted dozens of air strikes against alleged Hezbollah targets in Syria – and occasionally against purely Syrian targets – with the declared goal of preventing the transfer of sensitive weapons systems to the Lebanese militant group.
There is a growing acknowledgement by prominent Israeli analysts that these strikes have failed to achieve their objective, namely to contain Hezbollah’s growing military clout. This failure is used by these analysts to push the warped idea that in the next war Israel has to raise the stakes significantly by declaring war on Lebanon, as opposed to just Hezbollah. This strategy necessitates the wholesale destruction of Lebanese infrastructure.
There are now growing signs that a conflict may break out sooner than expected, with the Israelis carefully preparing a Western audience for a major war. The trigger for this war could come in any shape or form, with the repeated Israeli violations of Syrian sovereignty – in the form of air strikes – likely to elicit a credible response from either Hezbollah or Syria at some point. In this arena – as in other conflict arenas involving the Zionist state – it is the Israelis who control the provocation game.
The next war is likely to prove more devastating than the last, even if it is not longer, as Israel will mobilise all its resources to compensate for its loss in the Syrian conflict and, by extension, to change the balance of power with its most potent enemies. As it struggles to adapt to the end of the Syrian conflict, others must get ready to pay the price.