Middle East in Focus
Allegations that Iran plans to build permanent military bases in Syria, some in close proximity to the Israeli border, have alarmed the region. Many regional observers and government officials fear that the presence of Iranian troops near the Israeli border could shift the power balance in the region, creating conditions for a broader conflict. Iran and its allies have dismissed such fears, accusing Israel of being the real instigator of instability.
Underlining the complexity of the situation, a Jordan Times editorial refuses to take sides, but it does express concerns about the fragility of peace in the region: “Allegations that Iran plans to establish a permanent military base in Syria fuel the already high tensions over Iranian influence in Syria and across the region.... Israel needs little excuse to launch an attack on Iran, accused by many in the region of wanting to establish its influence, even hegemony, in the Middle East.... The base Iran is accused of building in Syria is some 50 kilometers from the Golan Heights. Seeing that the plateau was occupied and annexed by Israel, it is still, by international law, occupied territory, not Israel’s, but things being as they are, Israel claims the high moral ground while beating the drums of war.... No country in the region, Iran included, should act in a manner that further complicates the situation in Syria and the rest of Middle East.”
Turkish commentator Selin Nasi, writing for the Hurriyet Daily News, expresses a similar concern about the potential for war as a result of miscalculations on either side or both: “Israel, which views Iran as an existential threat, has long been laying the groundwork for another war against Hezbollah. The signs are clear. Throughout the course of the Syrian war Israel has occasionally hit convoys headed from the Golan Heights to Lebanon…. Although Israel has shown off its will to counter Hezbollah, the country does not necessarily want a conflagration.... On the other hand, if a new conflict does kick off, Israeli authorities claim they will not distinguish between Lebanon and Hezbollah and raze the whole country to the ground if necessary.... If pressure mounts, Iran would probably aim to foment instability throughout the Shia Crescent, seeking to mobilize oppressed Shiite communities in Sunni-controlled countries such as Saudi Arabia, imperiling the marriage of convenience between Israel and the Gulf countries by bringing the Palestinian question to the fore. In the Middle East even the best-laid plans frequently go to waste. And one spark can easily ignite an inferno.”
Israeli observers have long expressed concern about the presence of Iranian troops close to the Israeli border with Syria. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yaron Friedman is among those who are alarmed by what he sees as Iranian efforts to hem Israel in: “In the past months, there has been a lot of talk in the media about a possible threat to Israel, if and when Iran establishes permanent bases in Syria.... Meanwhile, however, without any public declarations, Iran is quietly recruiting young Syrians to establish a battalion just 30 kilometers from the Israeli border.... According to their reports, the Revolutionary Guards are recruiting members of minority groups, primarily from Shiite villages in the region.... The two Iranian bases in Damascus, only 70 kilometers from the Golan Heights, could be a serious threat to the State of Israel’s security in the near future. The 313th Battalion, which is currently taking shape 30 kilometers from our border, is a close and imminent danger.”
Israel’s criticism of Iran is matched — and perhaps exceeded — by some Arab editorials, including this Khaleej Times one, which accuses “Iran's sectarian experiment [of having] divided peaceful and secular societies like Lebanon, which has sizeable Sunni, Shia and Christian populations. They tried to replicate the experiment in Yemen but Gulf and Arab forces are pushing out the Houthis. Thus stonewalled by the Arab coalition, they are now keeping the kettle boiling in Lebanon in their bid to unsettle the government led by Hariri. Hezbollah suffered huge losses in the Syria campaign.... Iran runs a war economy that appears to have more control in Lebanon and may be forcing Hezbollah to renege on its democratic role in the country. From being a political partner, the group risks becoming a pariah after this episode. It has lost political credibility and military might. Gulf states must take the opportunity to corner its master in Tehran and prevent the rise of other proxies.”
Iranians, as this Press TV report illustrates, have pushed back against such allegations, arguing that it is Israel that constitutes the main threat to regional peace: “Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the Iranian parliament speaker's special advisor on international affairs... held a meeting with Palestinian Ambassador to Tehran Salah al-Zawawi, during which he warned about a plot to break up regional countries, saying it would hurt all Muslim states.... Amir-Abdollahian also reaffirmed Iran’s support for the resistance front in the face of Israeli acts of aggression and in the fight against terrorism.... The Iranian official said the Israeli regime was the main stakeholder in creating new tensions in the region, adding that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain were making a ‘strategic mistake’ in seeking to form a close bond with the regime in Tel Aviv.”
Jerusalem Post’s Charles Bybelezer suggests that, judging from the Israeli government’s recent track record, it is ultimately unlikely that Israeli will carry out its threats as long as Russia backs Iran: “Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sent shockwaves through Jerusalem on Tuesday when for the first time he publicly rebuffed Israel’s demand that Iran not be permitted to gain a permanent military foothold in Syria.... [T]he limits of Jerusalem's diplomatic influence on issues that pit world powers against each other are evident. And while the Israeli government presses its case, at times its concerns are seemingly an afterthought in the process of forging agreements to its exclusion, but which otherwise affect it directly. This is true both for the recent ceasefire in Syria, as well as Netanyahu's failed intensive campaign against the Iran nuclear deal.”