International meetings are only talking about an Israeli-Iranian war in Syria. No one asks whether it will happen or not or why, but rather when and how? Israelis have been talking about it for more than a year, and every time they mention it, they say that any delay increases their expected human losses. They also say that they are far behind in the prospective dates they set, and now they are in a rush.
Their plans were limited to Syria, as they did not want to change what they consider to be a reasonable situation in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded that it did not expect an escalation with them and did not want it, but their recent scenarios for their operations no longer rule out them extending to Lebanon.
They have constantly said that they cannot accept a growing arsenal of missiles on their northern borders. They had previously threatened that they would not spare any Syrian or Lebanese party, since it was the Iranians who linked the two fronts in one defence plan.
Yet Israel has not ignored the fact that it has an interest in not pushing the Syrian regime to collapse and does not want to provoke the Russians this much. At the same time, it cannot attack the Lebanese army because of international pressure that seems to be effective so far.
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In an Israeli-American evaluation conducted in Washington three days after the tripartite strikes in Syria, none of the representatives from any of the agencies refuted the fact that all of the strikes, which were limited to targeting chemical weapons facilities, did not change any of the problematic factors in Syria.
Russia has pushed its inflexibility to the limit and instead of responding to the calls for activating the political solution path; it focused on the need to reconcile its international relations (specifically between itself and the US) before anything else. On the other hand, it seemed more committed to its alliance with Iran.
Then, despite its denials, its hesitation was resolved and Russia supplied Bashar Al-Assad's regime with S-300 missiles, which were unloaded from a ship at the Tartus port, disguised by a cloud of smoke. Unless Moscow receives an initiative from Washington, it is unlikely that it will change its escalating positions, which suddenly raised the question of division.
More than one source said that the long meeting in Washington ended in a green light for Israel to attack the Iranians, with complete American support, including large bombs that can penetrate and destroy tunnels. However, there will not be direct US involvement, unless the situation required it.
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Intelligence information regarding Iran's field preparations was presented during this meeting. Such information was mostly gathered after the confrontations on 10 February, the tripartite attacks, the raid on the T-4 air base and the alleged virtual attack contributed to the discovery of the map of defences and means of defence.
Furthermore, the results of the Iranian contact (with Ali Shamkhani in Moscow, Ali Akbar Velayati in Damascus, Qasem Soleimani in Damascus and Beirut, Defence Minister Amir Hatami in Baghdad, and the revival of the "Quadripartite Alliance" which includes Russia, Iraq and the Syrian regime) were presented.
These facts have left many open-ended questions amongst the Americans and Israelis about the expected outcome of the war, especially Russia's position. It may have military surprises if coordination is not established with it, as it may leave the confrontation to explode in order to extract its interests from it. It may also use it as leverage to bargain with the Western countries on one hand and the Iranians on the other.
The Russian suggestion to divide Syria could just be a tactic in the context of psychological preparations for the war or a preconceived offer to avoid a confrontation that Moscow also fears can go beyond its control.
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Although the talk of dividing the country is no longer cause to condemn any of the intervening parties, nor does it expose or embarrass any of them, Russia has put it in the context of its intensified misinformation campaign since the use of chemical weapons in Douma. Its campaign aims to accuse the US of working towards division.
While Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Moscow was "monitoring the attempts to divide and destroy Syria", his deputy Sergei Ryabkov added on the same day: "We don't know how the situation is going to develop on the question of whether it is possible to keep Syria as a single country."
Ryabkov was the first Russian official to propose (in late February 2016) the establishment of a "federal republic" in Syria. Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova explained that Moscow had information indicating "the opposition's intention to establish an autonomous region in southern Syria with American support."
She also added that the opposition received suspicious shipments through the Jordanian border, claiming that it is American humanitarian aid. The Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, called for a special session to discuss the humanitarian situation in Raqqah, particularly to accuse the US of taking over Raqqah.
Washington had officially confirmed that it intends to organise the governance of the northeastern region of Syria and reinforce its growth and development by reconstructing it. However, President Donald Trump froze the $200 million that was supposedly allocated for this purpose. In addition, when the US sponsoring the signing of the de-escalation zone agreement in the southwestern part of Syria, no mention was made of attempts to make it an autonomous region.
However, the battles in Eastern Ghouta and the continued clashes in Homs, Hama, and the battle of Afrin, in addition to the ambiguous situation in Idlib, have all practically eliminated the de-escalation zone system. This is because it did not firmly commit to the regime or to the three guarantor states (Russia, Iran and Turkey).
Thus, the southern front factions may have proposed the extension of their areas of control in anticipation of any attack on them. This is especially because the regime's planes were recently attacked to cover the Iranians' ground troops.
The Americans may support the opposition project for another reason relating to protecting the lines of contact with Al-Tanf base and the Revolutionary Commando Army (led by Lieutenant Colonel Muhannad Al-Tala'a). This army is thought to have a role that will emerge soon in Deir Ez-Zour.
The irony lies in the fact that Russia's insistence on American involvement in the division plan coincided with the growing debate in Washington over the tripartite strikes and growing criticism of the lack of US strategy for Syria.
However, the general evaluation of Russia's performance does not suggest that it did a good job in preserving Syria's unity and eliminating the spectre of division. On the contrary, it actually carried out a series of manoeuvres before and after its intervention that resulted in thwarting the political solution with its persistent attempts to exclude the opposition.
It also did so by changing the composition of its negotiating delegation, preventing any progress in the negotiations, failing to pressure the regime to engage in serious and meaningful negotiations, and finally resorting to military action to enable the regime and Iranians to regain control. The Russians even took over contact with the factions and contributed to the Assad-Iran plans to displace more civilians. Furthermore, there is no doubt that the hindrance of a political solution was a systematic distraction designed to eliminate all those involved in the division process.
As for Al-Assad and Iran, division has been on their agendas since the beginning of the crisis and they worked on achieving this by means of raids, massacres and the expulsion of civilians from their homes and hometowns and distributing them inside and outside of the country.
Meanwhile, Al-Assad secured his coastal mini-state dominated by his factional militias and he received early international assurances that it would not be attacked or invaded. It seems that his remainder in Damascus after 2015 is a requirement of the international game and justification for fortifying that mini-state. This is what Russia and Iran need as a "legitimate" cover to continue their de facto occupation.
There is no doubt that the Iranians were and still are the fastest investors in the division as they have the most to benefit from expelling the inhabitants and the "absentees' properties" by means of settlements they established without any regard for the regime. They are running some according to the Israeli kibbutzim model.
Most importantly, they are the only ones with a clear-cut strategy, unlike the Russians and the Americans, and far beyond what the Turks would plan. They are certainly the only ones who managed to utilise their occupying presence in service of their political and military objectives, regardless of what the future may hold.
This article first appeared in Arabic in The New Khaleej on 26 April 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.