The United States, Russia and Jordan, with Israel’s acquiescence, recently negotiated a ceasefire among warring parties in the southwest corner of Syria, an area bordering both Israel and Jordan. Presidents Trump and Putin announced the achievement at their Hamburg summit, and it took effect July 9.
On the face of it, an end to the killing anywhere in Syria is a good thing. If stray shells and bullets no longer “leak” into the Israeli Golan, that, too, is obviously welcome news. And if this step offers a model for additional ceasefires throughout Syria and enables refugees to return home, that is a move in the right direction for the entire Middle East.
But there is far more to this ceasefire than a mere cessation of hostilities next door. By augmenting Russia’s capacity to affect Israel’s strategic interests, it could have far-reaching consequences.
While the U.S. is a party to the ceasefire agreement, it will not be involved in policing it. That task apparently falls to Russia. This could place Russian combat troops, dubbed “military police” for protocol purposes, across a narrow boundary divide from the Israel Defense Forces patrolling the Golan.
We have to look back to the Israel-Egypt War of Attrition across the Suez Canal in 1970 for a precedent of Russian troops so close to Israel’s borders. Then, Israel faced off against hostile Soviet Air Force and Air Defense divisions, and Israeli Phantom and Mirage combat aircraft shot down five Soviet-piloted MiGs. Now, Israel and Russia are friendly; they dialogue closely about their strategic interests in Syria. Still, this means that Russia, with its boots on the ground in Syria and its involvement in complex local negotiations, is now not only a fixture of the Arab Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean basin — it is also a direct neighbor of Israel.
This also seems to indicate that while Washington lent a hand in arranging de-escalation in Syria, it is leaving the western part of the country — the urban, non-desert part — to Russia, Iran and of course the Assad regime. The Trump administration is following the Obama pattern of reducing involvement in Middle East military conflict to a greater extent than it may like to admit.
This, too, is significant for Israel. While President Trump can be depended on to side with Israel against Iran, it is Moscow that Israel will have to address if under the new ceasefire arrangements Iranian or Iranian-proxy forces in Syria approach the border with Israel. Russia and Iran are allies in Syria; Russia and Israel most decidedly are not allies, however much Putin is reputed to admire Israel’s security and technological skills.
On the other hand, the southwest Syria agreement reportedly prohibits entry of non-Syrians to the ceasefire zone. And it brings Jordan and Israel more closely than ever into strategic coordination regarding Syria. That means a relatively united front against violations.
And violations there will be. After all, every ceasefire achieved in Syria over the past six years has collapsed. This one too is likely to be short-lived. Not only are resurgent forces loyal to Assad spoiling to reassert their sovereignty in the country’s southwest. There are also around 50 diverse and conflicted militias there, some more militant and more Islamist than others.
Technically, Israel is not bound by the ceasefire. It would prefer a quiet Syrian border where a ceasefire is enforced by others. This is because Israel does not want to be in Syria. In recent months, the Israel Defense Forces have reached understandings with the more moderate anti-Assad forces across the border. Israel resupplies them and they in turn keep the Sunni extremists and the Shiite Iranian proxies away. But the IDF has taken pains not to establish a presence of its own on the Syrian Golan, lest they witness a repeat of Israel’s disastrous 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000. In this regard, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the IDF have thus far managed Israel’s affairs in and around revolutionary Syria with admirable caution.
The most negative scenario Israeli strategic thinkers have conjured up for the Golan front involves an end to the Syrian civil war that places significant battle-tested Iranian and Hezbollah forces on Israel’s two northern fronts: the Golan and Lebanon. Iran is determined to control — directly or through proxies — territories in Iraq and Syria that provide it a corridor all the way from Tehran to Baghdad and Damascus to southern Lebanon and the Mediterranean. In doing so, it seeks not only to extend its strategic hegemony to the Levant. It also wants to pose a genuine military threat to Israel.
Does the southwest Syria ceasefire render this potentially violent contingency more or less likely? A great deal depends on Moscow.