Former Obama administration officials, and the left-leaning Israeli media, interpreted President Donald Trump’s March 21 decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights as a bid to help Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral prospects ahead of Israel’s Knesset elections on April 9.
But while the timing of the announcement — formalized Monday — may help Netanyahu and his Likud Party vis a vis his main opponent, former Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his “Blue and White” party, in all likelihood the timing of Trump’s statement was a function of recent developments in Syria.
The war in Syria broke out in 2011. It pitted the regime of Bashar Assad and his sponsors – the Iranian regime and Iran’s proxy forces, including Hezbollah and Shiite militias manned by Afghans, Pakistanis and Iraqis — against Sunni opposition forces, largely dominated by jihadist groups.
During the Obama administration, the U.S. shifted from diffident support for the Sunni rebels through CIA programs and support for Turkish operations to train and equip them, to opposition to the Sunnis and support for Iran. The shift in U.S. policy owed to the rise of Islamic State as the dominant Sunni force in Syria in 2014, and to U.S. efforts to appease Teheran in the framework of U.S. nuclear talks with Iran ahead of the 2015 nuclear deal.
From Israel’s perspective, the main threat the war posed was the prospect that through the regime, Iran would take direct control over Syria and use it, along with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon, to wage a major war against Israel. To thwart that prospect, Israel supported Sunni militia fighting the regime along its border in the Golan Heights, and conducted repeated airstrikes against Iranian targets, particularly weapons shipments in Syria that were destined for Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.
In 2015, the strategic balance of powers in Syria shifted decisively in favor of Iran and Assad with the arrival of Russian forces. Russia’s decision to engage directly in the war on behalf of the Iranian side meant that Assad would survive.
As soon as the Russian forces arrived on the scene, Netanyahu flew to Moscow for the first of a series of meetings with Putin whose goal was to enable Israel to continue striking Iranian targets in Syria even as Iran worked in alliance with Russia to preserve Assad in power.
Since Trump assumed office in 2017, Israel and the U.S. have coordinated their operations in Syria. The U.S. has supported Netanyahu and the agreements he forged with Putin, under which Israel limits its operations in Syria to Iranian weapons shipments and coordinates its strikes with Russian commanders to “deconflict” the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Russian forces. The U.S. has given full backing to Israeli operations, and so blocked Russia from undermining Israel’s freedom of operations.
U.S. forces in Syria, for their part have blocked Iranian forces and Iranian proxy forces from taking control over the Syrian border with Iraq, and so prevented Iran from achieving an arc of control stretching from Iran through Iraq to Syria to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. U.S. forces in Syria also block Russian forces, along with Iranian-controlled forces, from taking control over the oil fields in eastern Syria, thus denying Moscow a major income source from Syria.
Now that the war has more or less wound down, the major threat that Israel — and to a lesser but still significant degree, the U.S. — faces is the prospect of Iranian and Iranian controlled-forces taking control over the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Last week, the IDF released information to the media showing that Hezbollah is developing a military infrastructure along the border with Israel. According to the IDF information, Hezbollah’s so-called “Golan File” is headed by Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Hezbollah operative who was responsible for Hezbollah operations in Iraq.
Daqduq commanded an operation against U.S. forces in Karbala, Iraq in 2007 that involved the kidnapping and execution of five American soldiers. U.S. forces arrested him. Shortly after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Daqduq was released by an Iraqi court and returned to his duties as a senior operational commander for Hezbollah.
According to the IDF release, Daqduq’s operation in the Syrian Golan involves stockpiling weapons, setting up a military infrastructure in the area, and recruiting fighters.
The Iranian-led military operations on the ground in Syria have been supplemented by organizational actions by Iran to integrate Lebanon and Syria into one structure, led by Iran. That was the message of Supreme Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei’s meeting with Assad in Teheran last month. The meeting was attended by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Commander Qassem Soleimani.
Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif submitted his resignation following the meeting due to his non-inclusion among the meeting’s participants. Zarif’s exclusion, and Soleimani’s participation, were a strong signal that Iran, now in control of Syria through Soleimani-controlled Assad, is moving towards a major war against Israel.
That, then, returned the focus to Putin. The Trump administration shares Israel’s goal of unraveling the Russian-Iranian alliance. But for the past two-and-a-half years, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe undermined the Trump administration’s efforts to develop a cooperative relationship with the Kremlin that could supersede Russia’s relations with Iran.
Since Russian forces deployed to Syria, Netanyahu and Putin have met eleven times. The meetings led to agreements to deconflict Israeli forces operating in Syria from Russian forces and so enable Israel to continue attacking Iranian targets, while minimizing the danger that those operations endanger Russian operations and assets in the country. They have also produced Russian agreements in principle to prevent Iranian and Iranian proxy forces from deploying along the Syrian border with Israel. Israel has also been advocating, and Putin has formally agreed to, the goal of removing all foreign forces from Syria.
At the same time, forces opposed to Israel and sympathetic to Iran in the Russian Defense Ministry have undermined these agreements by enabling Iranian-controlled forces to deploy along the border with Israel. The Russian Defense Ministry tried to destroy Putin’s relationship with Netanyahu by blaming Israel for a September incident during which a Syrian anti-aircraft missile crew shot down a Russian spy plane shortly after Israel carried out an airstrike against Iranian missile shipments in Syria.
That incident cast a pall over Russian-Israel relations. Russia rushed an advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile battery to Syria with the intention of handing it over to the Syrian military.
Two days after the Assad meeting in Teheran, Netanyahu flew to Moscow for his first full-scale meeting with Putin since the September incident. During the course of the meeting, Israel sought assurances that the S-300 system would not be transferred to Syrian military control. Netanyahu reportedly also shared intelligence information with Putin about Iranian deployments that threaten Israel in Syria. Following the meeting, Putin restated his position that all foreign forces should withdraw from Syria. He and Netanyahu reportedly agreement to form a multinational group to oversee the withdrawal of those forces from Syria.
As several Israeli analysts have noted, it is impossible to know at this point whether these agreements will lead to a dimunition of Iranian power in Syria. But what is clear enough is that it is necessary to take steps to strengthen Israel’s deterrent position in Syria.
Trump’s announcement that the U.S. recognizes Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights is part of that effort. By making it clear that the U.S. will not use the prospect of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights as a means to appease Iran or other actors, Trump underscored the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and long-term survival.
In so doing, Trump signaled to Putin that the U.S. will stand with Israel in the event of a war. The purpose of this message is to empower the forces in the Kremlin that are interested in diminishing Russia’s alliance with Iran while strengthening Russia’s ties with Israel and the U.S.
Coupled with Trump’s agreement to retain four hundred troops in Syria to block Iranian seizure of control over the Syrian-Iraqi border, the move on the Golan is a clear show of U.S. resolve against Iran and its terror proxies.
The advantage of the move from the U.S. position is twofold. First, simply by recognizing the reality that Israel will retain the Golan Heights in perpetuity as part of its sovereign territory (for any other move would amount to national suicide), the U.S. altered the strategic leverage of all sides to the conflict for the better.
Second, by siding with Israel, the U.S. diminished the chance of war by signaling strongly to Russia that it is willing to risk a confrontation with Moscow in the event that such a war, which would pit Russia’s Iranian allies against Israel, breaks out. Russia, uninterested in a direct military confrontation with the U.S., will take the message seriously, going forward.
It is impossible to know what will happen in the future. The end of the Mueller probe, and the revelation that Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion between Trump and the Kremlin, may provide the political space required for the Trump administration to make a deal with Russia that will dramatically diminish Russia’s cooperation with Iran in Syria and beyond.
But barring that, the U.S. and Israel will need to continue their efforts to unravel Iran’s control of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq by working to destabilize the regime in Teheran and undermine its relations with its proxies and its allies — including Russia, Turkey, Qatar, and Venezuela.
Caroline Glick is a world-renowned journalist and commentator on the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy, and the author of The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East. She is running for Israel’s Knesset as a member of the Yamin Hahadash (New Right) party in Israel’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for April 9. Read more at www.CarolineGlick.com.