Can a devastating conflict be avoided? The best hope may lie with — of all people— Vladimir Putin.
President Donald Trump has put America on a path to war in the Middle East. Future historians will look back on his decision to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal, and related actions, as a folly akin to George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The consequences could be equally catastrophic.
If you wish to understand what’s really going on, don’t just keep your eye on Trump, whose zigzag pronouncements on Middle East strategy have demonstrated a characteristic lack of intellectual coherence. Instead watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who thinks in straight lines. His aim is to get America to curtail Iranian power and influence in the region — a level of power and influence, it should be noted, that was greatly heightened by America’s 2003 Iraq invasion, supported avidly at the time by none other than Netanyahu.
In other words, Netanyahu wanted the United States to get rid of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the interest of Israeli security — and now wants us to risk another war to take care of the fallout from that destabilising misadventure.
All this is evident in the Wall Street Journal’s lead article for Thursday, entitled ‘Israel Strikes Iranian Targets in Syria as Regional Tensions Mount’. The subhead: “Move is retaliation for Golan Heights rocket fire; escalating clashes come as Trump tries to get allies to join the US in confronting Iran across the region”.
The piece, by Dov Lieber and Dion Nissenbaum, doesn’t spell out explicitly what’s going on. But the message becomes clear once the fragments of the story are pieced together.
The writers begin by reporting that Israel carried out strikes against Iranian targets in Syria after Iranian forces in that war-torn country, according to Israel, fired rockets at Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights. The piece quotes an Israeli military spokesman as saying his country’s strikes against Iranian logistics, intelligence, and ammo-storage facilities were, as the reporters put it, the “largest-ever operation against Iranian positions in Syria”.
Lieber and Nissenbaum then note ‘a separate incident’ in which Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a barrage of missiles into Saudi Arabia. They write: “the pair of attacks were an early indication that Iran and its allies are flexing their muscles in the Middle East after Washington’s move (to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal). The strikes heightened tensions in a region already on edge and underlined the risk of direct confrontation between Iran and Israel following the US exit from the nuclear agreement”.
This passage gives the impression that Iran initiated a co-ordinated effort to demonstrate a feisty response to Trump’s action. This is nonsense. The Houthi rebels, who are only nominally backed by Iran, have sought in the past to lob missiles into Saudi Arabia, which is brutalising Yemen in an ineffective effort to dislodge them. Such actions had nothing to do with Trump’s decision or with Iran. And it was Israel, not Iran, which first initiated military action in the ongoing tensions between the two countries.
This becomes clear as the story unfolds and the context comes into focus. The reporters note that:
- Until now, Iran had “held back from any retaliatory response to recent Israeli strikes on its assets in Syria”;
- Israel is bent on preventing Iran from establishing any permanent military presence in Syria that stems from its current support for Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the civil war there;
- Israeli strikes in Syria have killed at least 24 Iranians, according to a UK monitoring group called the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights;
- Trump officials have given Israel “unequivocal support” for its strikes against Iranian positions in Syria;
- Trump, in announcing his decision on the nuclear deal, revealed that he had directed US military leaders to promulgate plans “to meet, swiftly and decisively, all possible modes of Iranian aggression against the US, our allies and our partners”;
- Officials harbour concerns about “dangerous blowback to thousands of US forces working in Iraq and Syria” if serious hostilities commence between the two countries.
So what does all this add up to? In pulling the US out of the international nuclear deal, Trump has heightened tensions with Iran on a number of issues unrelated to whatever nuclear ambitions that country may have. Netanyahu, who hated the nuclear deal from the start because it eased tensions and diminished pressure on Iran, now sees his opportunity to goad the Islamic Republic with pinprick airstrikes against Iranian positions in Syria. With Israel killing Iranians, a retaliatory response is inevitable, which is what Netanyahu wants. In this dangerous escalation of tensions, Trump has positioned his country on the side of Israel and against Iran; this will encourage further provocations by Netanyahu.
You don’t have to be Count Metternich to perceive where this is leading. It’s difficult to see how, under these circumstances, war can be avoided, while it’s easy to see how events could flip out of control and lead to war.
But there is a wild card: Vladimir Putin. Russia has also positioned itself in Syria and, like Iran, is an Assad ally. Thus could Israel’s goading of Iran, with America’s tacit assent, run afoul of Russian interests, risking a much broader war with a much more potent enemy. Netanyahu knows this, which is why he rushed to Moscow following his airstrikes on Iranian positions and sat next to Putin at Wednesday’s big Red Square military parade. He even pinned to his lapel the black and orange St George’s ribbon, a symbol of Russia’s martial heritage.
Wall Street Journal reporter Yaroslav Trofimov, writing from Moscow, explained what was going on, and his report dovetailed nicely with the piece by Lieber and Nissenbaum. Netanyahu, wrote Trofimov, had “deadly serious business to transact”. Trofimov states flatly that, with Trump pulling out of the nuclear deal and with “Israeli strikes in Syria gathering pace”, the Middle East is “sliding toward war”. Netanyahu’s fear is that some of those huge weapons on display last Wednesday (9 May) in Red Square could end up in Assad’s hands, “constraining Israel’s ability to operate in Syrian skies”.
Netanyahu wants assurances that Putin won’t oppose Israel’s aggressive actions in Syria so long as the Jewish state doesn’t bother Assad. Trofimov quotes a former Israeli defence official as saying, “the Russians are worrying that we may go after Assad, and we are telling them that we are not going to go after Assad unless he allows the Iranians to go after us”.
Aha! There you have it. But left unsaid here is that Israel wants to reach this accommodation so it can target Iranians without having to worry about retaliation.
Fat chance. Trofimov quotes a Russian foreign policy intellectual, Andrey Kortunov, as saying that one of Putin’s greatest fears is a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran. That would destroy not only his plans for a settlement of the Syrian Civil War but also his hopes “for reaching any kind of stability in the region”. Kortunov adds, “I think Putin will do everything possible to prevent it”.
Trofimov speculates that Putin could emerge as an interlocutor between Israel and Iran in efforts to mediate the tensions between them. But it’s an open question whether Putin has any real incentive to pressure Iran, its ally in the Syrian fight against Islamist radicals and other anti-Assad forces, to abandon positions it has acquired through hard fighting.
Can Putin dissuade Netanyahu from escalating his anti-Iranian initiatives in Syria? Will he even try? Would Netanyahu listen to Putin in any event? Will Putin give advanced weaponry to Assad, and would Assad use it against Israelis if Israel expanded its attacks against Iran? Will Netanyahu risk everything on the prospect of manufacturing a direct confrontation between Iran and the US? Would he succeed if he tried? Would Trump even understand the ramifications of it all? Would he have the inclination or the guts to rein in Netanyahu?
On such questions hangs the ominous pivot of war and peace in the Middle East. Right now it looks more like war than peace.
This article was first published on The American Conservative, and has been republished here with permission.