From Consortium News
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making opening remarks at a joint White House press conference with President Donald Trump on Feb. 15, 2017.
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There's a rumor going around that the Syrian civil war is finally winding down and that the Baathist government is nearing its goal of driving out thousands of ISIS-Al Qaeda head-choppers financed and supplied -- directly or indirectly -- by the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the other Persian Gulf oil monarchies.
It would be good news if true. But most likely it's not. While one stage in the Syrian conflict is coming to an end, another is beginning, and this time the results could be even worse.
The reason is Israel, until now the odd man in the latest Mideast wars. Despite intervening sporadically on the rebel side in Syria, the Jewish state generally held itself aloof from the conflict in the belief that events were breaking its way regardless of whether it stepped in or not. After all, why go to war when your enemies are doing a fine job of tearing each other apart on their own?
With President Bashar al-Assad expected to step down eventually, Israel figured that it only had to wait and watch as a hostile regime collapsed under its own weight as it thrashed about unable to restore order to Syria. Never in the Arab-Israeli hundred years' war had Israel seemed stronger and the Arabs weaker and in greater disarray.
But then the unthinkable happened. Assad not only survived but prevailed. Backed by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, he has bottled up Al Qaeda in East Ghouta and Idlib province in the extreme northwest and is racing to lift ISIS's siege on Deir-Ezzor along the Euphrates. If successful, the effect will be to clear a path straight through to the Iraqi border some 30 miles to the east.
U.S. military enclaves may remain in the northeast and in the southern border town of Al-Tanf. But it's hard to see how they'll have much of an impact as the Damascus regime tightens its grip on the country as a whole.
But rather than making a wider war less likely, the upshot is to make it even more. Having bet on the wrong horse, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now finds himself facing a nightmare scenario in which Iran takes advantage of Assad's winning streak to extend its reach from Iraq and Syria into Lebanon beyond. It's not just a question of political influence, but of the emergence of a powerful Iranian-led military bloc.
Eleven years after fighting a vicious 34-day war in southern Lebanon, Israel thus finds itself facing not only Hezbollah but the Syrian Arab Army, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards, and Iraqi Shi'ite militias -- all backed by Russian military might -- in a front extending across its entire northern border. All are battle-hardened after years of combat, better armed, better led, and more self-confident to boot. Israel finds itself confronting a new threat that is many times more powerful than Hezbollah (or Syria) alone.
Israeli consternation is not to be underestimated. One news outlet says the official attitude is one of "grave concern" while an anonymous government minister heaped blame on the U.S. for sacrificing Israeli interests:
"The United States threw Israel under the bus for the second time in a row. The first time was the nuclear agreement with Iran, the second time is now that the United States ignores the fact that Iran is obtaining territorial continuity to the Mediterranean Sea and Israel's northern border. What is most worrisome is that this time, it was President Donald Trump who threw us to the four winds -- though viewed as Israel's great friend. It turns out that when it comes to actions and not just talk, he didn't deliver the goods."
Netanyahu is meanwhile off to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to confer with Russian President Vladimir Putin while, in Washington, Israeli military and intelligence officials are meeting with top Trump officials such as National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and special Mideast envoy Jason Greenblatt.
Israel has also engaged in saber-rattling with regard to a missile factory that it says Iran is building in the Syrian port city of Baniyas. Gadi Eisenkot, the Israeli military's chief of staff, said that stopping efforts by Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah to equip themselves with accurate missiles capable of striking deep inside the Jewish state "is our top priority."
Adds Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's hard-right defense minister: "We know what needs to be done... We won't ignore the establishment of Iranian weapons factories in Lebanon."