Analysis: Iran Remains the Real Issue in Syria

Lavrov Putin Trump (Mikhail Klimentyev, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press)
Mikhail Klimentyev, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unexpected public announcement on Sunday that his government opposes the cease-fire in part of Syria that the U.S. and Russia negotiated earlier this month.

The reason: freezing the war in place leaves Iran with a substantial military presence in Syria that it could soon use to threaten Israel. Netanyahu made it clear that he reserves the right to attack Iranian targets inside Syria’s borders.

Netanyahu’s announcement marks the first serious public difference with the Trump administration. (U.S. criticism of Israeli settlement policies has been rather muted, and the delay in moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem is likely a temporary one.)

President Donald Trump has been pointing to the Syria cease-fire agreement as a significant diplomatic achievement — and it is. But it has strategic consequences that could hurt Israel — and the U.S. as well.

The easiest and likeliest way for the Trump administration to resolve the difference with Israel is to allow it a free hand in Syria — just as President George W. Bush did in 2007, when Israel destroyed a North Korean-built nuclear facility in Syria. President Barack Obama, likewise, did not interfere on the many occasions then Israel attacked Iranian military targets in Syria that were involved in delivering weapons to their Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon.

Still, Netanyahu’s warning is a reminder that the real issue in Syria is Iran. Undoubtedly, the Assad regime would have collapsed without Iranian support. Iran is using the Assad regime as a way to extend its power throughout the region and especially to threaten Israel. Russia’s involvement, as usual, came about as the result of a power vacuum — in this case, the void left by Obama’s reluctance to intervene when the revolt against Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.

Russia and the U.S. have a joint interest in defeating the so-called Islamic State, and in preventing terror from spreading beyond Syria to other parts of the world. Beyond that, the Russians see the Assad regime as a useful platform for its revival as a regional power, including new Russian military bases. The Russians are largely indifferent to Iran’s geopolitical fortunes, but certainly are in no rush to help the U.S. contain Iranian ambitions.

And so, paradoxically, the ceasefire in Syria will not fail to prevent a future war with Iran, and may make such a conflict even more likely. In addition to giving Israel the green light to defend its interests, the Trump team needs to look beyond Syria and consider it as part of a broader geopolitical confrontation with Iran — one that the policies of past administrations made nearly inevitable, and one that is not going to be wished away with temporary deals.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. He is the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.