Since July 25 last, Assad’s Syrian Arab Army has hammered the Israeli front of the Golan Heights with its artillery, often logistically supported by Russia.
The goal is obviously to prompt a response by the Jewish State and make it wage a war directly against Syria.
A pointless suicide for Israel, a return to the old and useless lines of the Cold War in the Middle East.
This would also mean starting to put pressure on the Southern front, precisely towards the Golan Heights, both by the Hezbollah, now retreated towards the border between the Lebanon, Syria and Israel, and by the Iranian Armed Forces and their “volunteers”. The direction for everybody would be towards the Israeli Northern border, while Russia would clearly support this joint operation against Israel.
For Russia the war in Syria has been the great catalyst for its new hegemonic alliance in the Middle East, not a new position towards the Jewish State, still seen as a US “prong” in the region.
Certainly, for everybody the core of the issue lies in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement that the Golan Heights will anyway be excluded from any future negotiations on Syria.
Nevertheless, with specific reference to the Golan Heights issue, Russia wants to remain the point of reference for Egypt, Iran and many other “non-aligned” countries, which fear too strong a link between Russia and Israel.
Russia will favour Israel only to such a point as not to create new tensions with its “non-aligned countries’ front”.
However what do the major global and regional powers really want after the end of hostilities in Syria?
The United States mainly want to define a “Kurdish corridor” from Iskenderun to Orumieh and, southwards, from Mosul almost up to Georgia’s borders.
It would be an area where the NATO troops would be stationed permanently, with or without Turkey’s participation.
The area around Israel, up to the North and beyond, the Golan Heights, including part of the territory in the Damascus Province, would then be the area directly or indirectly controlled by the Jewish State, the United States and, again, by NATO.
Even after President Erdogan’s countercoup, Turkey cannot but accept the “Kurdish corridor”, though not at the expense of the Turkish Southern border. Without this acceptance, Turkey would remain without the US support, which is the only one available in the West and the only one capable of avoiding Turkey being subjected to the Russian hegemony in the region.
Not to mention the Turkish support to the Jabhat al Nusra Front – the Syrian group of Al Qaeda, which has recently split off from the “parent” organization in the Aleppo region – as well as to ISIS and the Turkmen jihad.
It is the instrument to wage an undeclared war against Russia and Syria, that Ankara would soon put again in place if the “Kurdish corridor” were not controlled by the NATO forces.
Nevertheless, following Syria’s fragmentation into zones of influence, nothing prevents the Atlantic Alliance from deciding to divide Turkey itself in an Anatolian component and a coastal one. There are NATO plans regarding this option, which must not be ruled out at all.
Furthermore, many analysts underline the strong support enjoyed by the jihadists among the soldiers in the “new” Turkish army emerging from the coup purges.
If the current Israeli strategy succeeds, the country could defend the Golan Heights along its sides, as well as divert, towards the Bekaa Valley, the Sunni jihadists directed against Hezbollah and finally better control the deployment of Bashar al-Assad’s forces along the Syrian border with Israel.
Moreover Iran’s primary aim in the region is to keep as intact as possible the Assads’ Syrian Alawite State, which is the necessary rampart against the Sunni Turkey and the inevitable protection against a Sunni jihad’s penetration of its Western borders.
What can Russia want after the end of operations in Syria?
Let us analyse the Russian strategic opportunities.
Either Russia wants a small Syria, which mainly defends the Russian ports on the Mediterranean, or it wants a slightly larger Syria with Damascus, Homs, Aleppo and Hama, big enough to act as a bulwark vis-à-vis Turkey and cover Iran, but insufficient to defend itself on its own.
Or Russia might also wish to return to the pre-2011 Greater Syria, but this would entail a huge Russian military and strategic effort, which probably does not correspond to its primary strategic objective.
This goal is to isolate the NATO Alliance in the Mediterranean and prevent its significant presence on the ground.
We may even think that Russia would accept the “line” adopted at the “Geneva-3” Conference, with a Greater Syria without Bashar al-Assad, but always with a strong Alawite presence designed to guarantee Russia’s Mediterranean interests.
For the time being, however, the real danger for Israel does not come from ISIS-Daesh, which has no points of contact with the Jewish State, but from the Hezbollah, which can already become a serious threat in the Golan Heights and is also an indispensable terrestrial asset for Russia, which mostly operates only from the sky and mainly strike the positions of the anti-Assad “insurgency”.
If Syria remains strong and within its current borders, it will become the Iranian strategic prong against Saudi Arabia and the State of Israel, and Russia will be in a position to do little to stop this new geopolitical configuration.
The interests binding Russia to Iran are much stronger and stable than those which have so far linked Russia to Israel.
For Russia, Iran is the necessary line of continuity with the whole Central Asia and the point of energy cooperation with China, as well as the strategic bulwark against insurgencies southwards and eastwards in the Greater Middle East.
Conversely, for Moscow, Israel is an economic partner, a factor of stability in the region and a future natural gas producer, but also a limit to the Russian project of reuniting all the anti-jihadist expectations and aspirations opposed to the Saudi hegemony, seen as the point of strength of the US presence in the region.
Russia wishes an Eastern Mediterranean freed from the NATO presence, from the North to the South, and does not yet view Israel as a fully independent strategic actor, autonomous from the United States.
Moscow wants to “see” the actual distance between Israel and the United States – just to use the poker jargon.
Hence currently Israel has two geopolitical options: a tacit alliance with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, under the US aegis, thus closing the window of opportunity for a strategic partnership with Russia.
Or an agreement with Russia for a smaller Syria without Bashar al-Assad, by ensuring the Russian strategic interests in the Mediterranean and Turkey.
Today, however, everything passes through Aleppo, largely reconquered by Assad and the Russian forces.
If the city is regained permanently by the Iranian-Russian-Syrian coalition, Turkey – also after its recent rapprochement with Russia – will no longer have the logistical and strategic possibility to support the anti-Assad forces – an opportunity passing precisely through Aleppo. It will also lose its leverage southwards, towards the “Kurdish corridor”.
Furthermore Turkey has already sent troops to Iraq, claiming part of the territory of that State which has now collapsed, while currently Turkey cannot afford a confrontation with Iran for Syria, let alone strong tensions with Russia, which supplies to Turkey 55% of its gas requirements, still under embargo.
Hence if Turkey can reach an agreement with Russia and also with Israel for its anti-Assad presence in Syria, without fearing a full-blown war between Russia and NATO, the New Syria could shrink to a strip of land between Turkey and Iran, guaranteed by Russia and strongly conditioned by Israel on its Southern front.
And Israel could expand its security zone in the Golan Heights, thus leading to Syrian reactions vis-à-vis Russia and triggering off the massive arrival of war material for an operation from the North against Israel. This is exactly what Russia wants to avoid.
The Golan Heights are the symbol of the “non-aligned” countries and Russia cannot forget this too easily.
Hence the whole Syrian system is an equation, with too many unknown factors to be solved, that Israel is right in putting aside, in view of the solution to the Kurdish and Syrian tensions.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France