Photo Credit: Google Maps
Daraa province (in pink) / Photo credit: Google Maps

{Originally posted to the JNS website}

The city of Daraa, in southern Syria, was the ‎birthplace of the Syrian revolt against ‎President Bashar Assad over seven years ago, and ‎over the weekend it became the place where the ‎revolt was declared dead and buried, as the rebels ‎who held the city and its surroundings raised a ‎white flag and surrendered to Assad’s forces. ‎

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From the outset, the rebels didn’t really stand a ‎chance, especially given the regime’s airstrikes, ‎which grew even more brutal once Assad’s Russian ‎allies joined the fray.‎ No less decisive for the rebels was what they call ‎the “betrayal” of the United States. Six months ago, ‎Washington pledged to stand by their side, but when ‎push came to shove, the Americans preferred to ‎strike a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin ‎and allow the Syrian army to seize control of the ‎country’s south.‎

Israel has resigned itself to the fact that Assad ‎will once against control the shared Golan Heights ‎border. After all, barring military intervention, it ‎does not have to ability to stop him. This type ‎of intervention is something Israel has gone to ‎great lengths to avoid, and rightfully so. ‎

Besides, over the past four decades, the Assad regime—first led by Hafez Assad and then by his son, ‎Bashar—has been careful to keep the peace on the ‎Israel-Syria border. The younger Assad made sure to ‎maintain this policy throughout the civil war, even ‎containing incident when Israel eliminated Iranian ‎and Hezbollah targets on his soil.‎

Assad may have won the war in Syria, but this is a ‎Pyrrhic victory. It will take him years, perhaps ‎decades, to rehabilitate the country and especially ‎his army. Meanwhile, his fate is in the hands of the ‎allies to whom he owes his victory: Russia and ‎Hezbollah. ‎

It seems that here lies the potential trap for ‎Israel. Not only has Assad returned to the border, ‎this time he is backed by Iran’s regional proxy.‎

Washington and Moscow may have lent a sympathetic ‎ear to Israel’s demand that any deal reached in ‎Syria will require Iranian militias to stay far away ‎from the border, but neither the Americans nor the ‎Russians have offered any guarantees to that effect.‎

If anything, any statement supporting the Israeli ‎position was followed by a contradicting one, such ‎as the Russian Foreign Ministry’s statement that the ‎Iranian presence in Syria is legitimate and it would ‎be “unrealistic” to expect Iran to pull its ‎forces out of the war-torn country.‎

It appears that no one wants or seems to be able to remove the ‎Iranians—neither from the border with Israel nor ‎from Syria proper. After all, Tehran did not invest ‎tens of billions of dollars and sacrifice thousands ‎of militiamen in Syria simply to bow out at Israel’s ‎request.‎

The challenge Israel faces intensifies given the ‎emerging trend suggesting that Iran is seeking a ‎confrontation on the border or, at the very least, a ‎violent wrestling match with U.S. President Donald ‎Trump. ‎

The Iranians have already warned that if the United States ‎tries to stifle them economically they will block ‎all oil exports from the Persian Gulf, which, in turn, ‎could significantly cripple the global economy. This ‎unprecedented threat came not from a junior ‎Revolutionary Guard officer but from President ‎Hassan Rouhani himself, a self-professed moderate. ‎

Still, it seems that the ayatollahs’ regime, which ‎is already feeling the crunch and is wary of Trump’s ‎future actions, has been left with only one weapon: ‎threats. It is doubtful that Iran truly wants a direct ‎military confrontation with the United States in the Gulf, as ‎that would be a dangerous and costly scenario for ‎Tehran. A limited confrontation with Israel on the ‎Golan Heights, however, one with indirect Iranian ‎involvement, could send necessary messages to Trump ‎and his allies. ‎

The bottom line is that Assad’s newfound control of ‎the Golan Heights does not necessarily mean peace ‎and quiet in the area. The Iranians are likely to ‎turn southern Syria into their playground and while ‎the United States remains a side in this conflict, ‎it will be up to Israel, at least for now, to stop Iran.‎

(Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University)

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