Netanyahu’s Red Lines

Israel senses an opportunity that may not recur to launch a war of aggression

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Over the years, numerous Israeli ‘red lines’ have been imposed on the Iranians and Arabs, especially those Arabs who stick to their principles.  Scarcely a day passes without Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu laying down a new one.

On Monday, he proclaimed yet another red line when he declared during a cabinet meeting that he would direct devastating blows on Lebanon to prevent Hezbollah from developing non-conventional weapons or acquiring them from Iran via Syria.

On Sunday, he announced that he would not tolerate any Iranian presence on Syrian territory, nor allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, on the grounds that all its weaponry whether conventional or non-conventional is directed against Israel, so destroying it would be an act of justified self-defence (begging the question of why the Arabs and Iranian do not have the same right of self-defence against Israeli nuclear and conventional weapons).

These red lines and their offshoots are not a sign of strength but of panic. Despite signing peace treaties with the Arab frontline states (minus Syria) – including the PLO, standard-bearer of the supreme Arab cause, via the Oslo Accords – Israel continues to sense an existential threat, currently attributed to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

If Netanyahu carries out his threat to attack Hezbollah missile-making plants it will be the first such assault since his country was defeated in Lebanon in 2006. Since then, Israeli forces have not dared strike at Hezbollah in Lebanon because they know that its retaliation will be extremely costly.

When the Americans, Israelis and their Arab allies drew up their plans to dismember Syria, exhaust its army and displace millions of its people, it never crossed their minds that this would throw the country’s doors wide open to its Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah allies.

Before the fuse of the Syrian crisis was lit in March 2011, there was not a single Iranian soldier on Syrian soil. The same can be said for Russian forces.  Those now complaining about these forces’ presence – especially the Iranians – and demanding their withdrawal are the same people who created the conditions for their deployment in the first place.

There are only two circumstances in which Iranian forces would conceivably withdraw from Syria.

First, if a major war breaks out targeting Iran’s forces and presence in Syria and they are utterly decimated and defeated.

Alternatively, if Syria recovers fully, its army regains its military capability, all illegal foreign forces – especially US forces – are withdrawn, and the central government reasserts its sovereignty over all Syrian territory.

The first-case scenario – an Israeli assault on Syria aimed at ejecting the Iranians by force — is looking more likely than the second one. This is because the restoration of Syria’s sovereignty over all its territory will take a long time given the US’ current posture and its renewed bid to partition the country by setting up weak autonomous entities that cannot defend themselves and will need to conclude protection treaties with it like the Arab Gulf states.

But this does not mean that such a war will go Israel’s way.

An Israeli-Iranian war on Syrian territory seems almost unavoidable amid the rising tensions following the Trumps administration’s renunciation of the nuclear deal and the prospect of Tehran resuming uranium enrichment in response to this renegal and the suffocating economic sanctions anticipated in its wake.

There are three fronts which could ignite, whether singly or simultaneously, in light of Netanyahu’s threats.

First, the southern Syrian front, in the Deraa district and it environs, where a Syrian and Russian military build-up has been taking place since the battle to secure the Greater Damascus area was won.  Plans have been drawn up to reopen the Syria-Jordan border by force after all mediation ands negotiation efforts aimed at achieving this were foiled, specifically by the Jordanian side.

Secondly, the South Lebanon front. Israel has been talking in recent months about the existence of numerous factories in South Lebanon producing various kinds and sizes of missiles under the supervision of Hezbollah and Iranian experts. This change of message comes after Israeli warplanes carried out more than 100 air raids in Syria supposedly targeting Iranian missile deliveries to Hezbollah over the course of the past five years.
Third, the Golan Front. There has been mounting Israeli pressure on the US and the Trump administration to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over this occupied Syrian territory, especially after US support was secured for Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem with its recognition as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the US embassy to the city.
We do not know where the fuse will be lit or on which of the three fronts. But war seems almost inevitable given the existence of a US administration led by Trump and a group of pro-Israeli hawks such as National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary James Mattis, and which is under Netanyahu’s direct management.
This means that the opportunity is now available to launch a war of aggression, and it may not recur.