Analysis | Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance’ Against Israel Will Have to Make Do Without Syria

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‘Is Assad even part of the resistance front and the united front?’ Arab pundits wonder. How is it possible that while Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shi’ite militias in Iraq have all been involved in coordinated action against Israel, Syria was letting Israel continue attacking Iranian targets

 

In early April, Israel assassinated an officer of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, in a building next door to the Iranian consulate in Damascus. Three days later, a senior source on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council was quoted as saying that it had received a report from the Iranian security services voicing suspicions that elements of the Syrian regime have been involved in Israel’s assassinations of senior Iranian officers.

According to this source, information leaked by the Syrian security services reached Israel and helped it carry out the assassination. Two months earlier, Reuters similarly quoted Iranian sources as saying that Iran’s security services suspected Israel was getting precise information from Syrian sources that had enabled it to assassinate a long list of Quds force officers.

Arab media outlets also noted that Syrian President Bashar Assad is the only leader in the Iranian-led “axis of resistance” who didn’t congratulate Iran for its missile and drone attack on Israel in response to Zahedi’s assassination. Moreover, Assad was the only one of these leaders who didn’t speak at or even participate in the International Quds Day event Iran organizes each year. But the biggest question was raised by Assad’s absence from the funeral for Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who was killed in a helicopter accident in May.

“Is Assad even part of the resistance front and the united front?” Arab pundits wondered. And how, they asked, is it possible that while Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shi’ite militias in Iraq have all been involved in coordinated action against Israel, Syria was letting Israel continue attacking Iranian targets and convoys of arms and equipment intended for Hezbollah?

According to both Western and Arab sources, when the war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip began on October 7, Israel, Russia and the U.S. all sent unambiguous messages to Assad warning him not to join the war alongside Hezbollah or Iran. These forceful warnings apparently included threats to attack the presidential palace and institutions of the regime if Syria attacked Israel.

Assad apparently not only listened carefully to these warnings, but also sent messages to Hezbollah in which he recommended that it not expand the war or attack deeper inside Israel. And it apparently wasn’t too difficult to persuade him to stay out.

That’s because Hamas’ relationship with the Syrian regime has never recovered from the organization’s decision to sever relations in 2012 due to Syria’s slaughter of its own people. In contrast, Hamas’ relationship with Iran began healing, albeit slowly and suspiciously, two years ago, though some Hamas leaders, especially Khaled Meshal, still oppose closer ties with Tehran.

When the possibility (once again) arose in early June that Qatar might oust Hamas’ external leadership from its territory, Iran reportedly asked Assad whether he would be willing to let it relocate to Syria. The answer from Damascus was a hard no.

Assad, who managed to survive the civil war that erupted in Syria 13 years ago and, with massive Russian assistance, regain control over most of the country, is currently maintaining a measured, cautious relationship with Iran. He has received economic aid worth billions from Tehran, in the form of credit lines, oil and consumption goods. But he gave the significant economic rewards – control over Syria’s oilfields and future licenses to drill for oil and gas off its Mediterranean coast – to Russia, since he owes his military success to its decision to join the war against the rebels in September 2015.

At the time, Assad was forced to agree to a long list of concessions that Moscow demanded, and which infuriated Iran. These included ignoring Israel’s attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, which Israel coordinates with the Russian forces there, as long as Israel doesn’t attack the regime or its institutions.

As part of this indirect coordination between Israel and Syria, Assad also ordered some Iranian militias to leave the Golan Heights and southern Syria, especially the districts of Daraa and Sweida, although they didn’t move 85 kilometers away from the Israeli border as Israel had demanded. The militias were replaced at least partly by a Russian policing force.

In both districts, and especially in the Druze city of Sweida, frequent demonstrations against the regime have been taking place since last October. They were sparked by economic measures, but quickly morphed into political protests that included a demand for Assad’s ouster. Young Druze, on orders from some of the community’s religious leaders, are also refusing to enlist in the Syrian army, on the grounds that they don’t want to be part of the regime’s war against its own citizens.

But beyond that, the regime has been contending for months with a popular Druze movement that has challenged its legitimacy and urged the international community to intervene in Syria to implement UN resolutions. Assad charges that the organization, led by Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, plans to set up an autonomous Druze region in southern Syria similar to the autonomous Kurdish regions in the country’s north and thereby tear the country apart.

He has therefore begun trying to regain control over the district, but so far with no success. His fear of a conflict with the Druze community, alongside international pressure – which the community’s leaders know how to mobilize, and which has included involvement by Druze leaders in Israel, first and foremost Sheikh Mowafak Tarif – is forcing the regime to act with maximal caution.

For instance, the Syrian army erected a checkpoint at Sweida’s northern entrance last week. The protests that erupted threatened to spark violent clashes between the Druze residents and the army, and only thanks to the intervention of several community leaders was an “agreement” reached under which the checkpoint would be moved west of the entrance to the city and wouldn’t be used to inspect civilians.

Israel has also been inserted into this conflict. It is frequently accused of encouraging the establishment of an autonomous Druze region to serve as a buffer zone against pro-Iranian militias and Hezbollah forces. On the other hand, one report claimed that Israel had actually coordinated with the Assad regime over the latter’s move to beef up the forces in southern Syria, in exchange for a promise that those troops would replace Hezbollah forces in the area.

There’s no particular reason to think any of these reports are accurate. But they do attest to the role Israel plays in Syria’s political conversation, and not only in military developments there. Whether Assad believes that Israel has the power to shake his regime through its ties to the Druze community or whether he’s using this as an excuse to recruit community leaders to his side, he presumably isn’t interested in putting the question to the test by joining the “resistance front” or becoming an active member or the “united front.”

The result, from Iran’s perspective, is that so far, it hasn’t managed to recruit even one sovereign state to its resistance front. Consequently, its “ring of fire” around Israel will continue to be maintained by organizations that also have their own interests, which don’t always align with Iran’s.

 

ملخّص:

في مقال منشور في جريدة “هآرتس” الإسرائيلية، يسأل الكاتب “زفي بارئيل”:  “هل الأسد جزء من جبهة المقاومة والجبهة الموحدة؟، يتساءل النقاد العرب. كيف يعقل أنه في حين أن إيران وحزب الله والحوثيين والميليشيات الشيعية في العراق جميعهم منخرطون في عمل منسق ضد إسرائيل، فإن سوريا كانت تسمح لإسرائيل بمواصلة مهاجمة الأهداف الإيرانية؟”

في أوائل إبريل/نيسان، اغتالت إسرائيل ضابطاً في فيلق القدس التابع للحرس الثوري الإيراني، محمد رضا زاهدي، في مبنى مجاور للقنصلية الإيرانية في دمشق. وبعد ثلاثة أيام، نُقل عن مصدر رفيع في المجلس الأعلى للأمن القومي الإيراني قوله إنه تلقى تقريراً من أجهزة الأمن الإيرانية يعرب عن شكوك في تورط عناصر من النظام السوري في الاغتيالات الإسرائيلية لكبار الضباط الإيرانيين.

وبحسب هذا المصدر فإن المعلومات التي سربتها الأجهزة الأمنية السورية وصلت إلى إسرائيل وساعدتها في تنفيذ عملية الاغتيال. وقبل ذلك بشهرين، نقلت رويترز بالمثل عن مصادر إيرانية قولها إن أجهزة الأمن الإيرانية تشتبه في أن إسرائيل تحصل على معلومات دقيقة من مصادر سورية مكنتها من اغتيال قائمة طويلة من ضباط فيلق القدس.

كما أشارت وسائل الإعلام العربية إلى أن الرئيس السوري بشار الأسد هو الزعيم الوحيد في “محور المقاومة” الذي تقوده إيران والذي لم يهنئ إيران على هجومها الصاروخي والطائرات بدون طيار على إسرائيل رداً على اغتيال زاهدي. علاوة على ذلك، كان الأسد هو الوحيد من بين هؤلاء القادة الذي لم يتحدث أو حتى يشارك في احتفال يوم القدس العالمي الذي تنظمه إيران كل عام. لكن السؤال الأكبر يطرحه غياب الأسد عن تشييع الرئيس الإيراني إبراهيم رئيسي، الذي قُتل في حادث طائرة هليكوبتر في مايو/أيار الماضي.

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