Israel and Iran, at the exact same time, seem to be heading for a High Noon shootout in Syria over Iran’s attempts to turn Syria into a forward air base against Israel, something Israel is vowing to never let happen. This is not mere speculation. In the past few weeks — for the first time ever — Israel and Iran have begun quietly trading blows directly, not through proxies, in Syria.
And this quiet phase may be about to end.
.. Israel and Iran are now a hair-trigger away from going to the next level — and if that happens, the U.S. and Russia may find it difficult to stay out.
.. Round one occurred on Feb. 10, when an Iranian drone launched by a Revolutionary Guards Quds Force unit operating out of Syria’s T4 air base, east of Homs in central Syria, was shot down with a missile from an Israeli Apache helicopter that was following it after it penetrated Israeli airspace.
.. “the aircraft was carrying explosives” and that its mission was “an act of sabotage in Israeli territory.”
.. Israeli jets launched a predawn missile raid on the Iranian drone’s T4 home base last Monday. This would have been a huge story — Israel killed seven Iranian Quds Force members, including Col. Mehdi Dehghan, who led the drone unit — but it was largely lost in the global reaction to (and Trump tweets about) President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons two days earlier.
.. the Iranians not only openly announced their embarrassing losses through the semiofficial Fars news agency — they have played down previous indirect casualties from Israeli strikes in Syria — but then publicly vowed to take revenge.
.. Israeli defense officials have let it be known that if the Iranians were to strike back at Israeli targets, Israel may use the opportunity to make a massive counterstrike on Iran’s entire military infrastructure in Syria, where Iran is attempting to establish both a forward air base, as well as a factory for GPS-guided missiles that could hit targets inside Israel with much greater accuracy — inside a 50-meter radius
.. Iran claims it is setting up bases in Syria to protect it from Israel, but Israel has no designs on Syria; it actually prefers the devil it knows there — Assad — over chaos.
.. it has not intervened in the civil war there except to prevent the expansion of Iran’s military infrastructure there or to retaliate for rebel or Syrian shells that fell on Israel’s territory.
.. Tehran’s attempt to build a network of bases and missile factories in Syria — now that it has helped Assad largely crush the uprising against him — appears to be an ego-power play by Iran’s Quds Force leader Suleimani to extend Iran’s grip on key parts of the Sunni Arab world and advance his power struggle with President Hassan Rouhani.
Suleimani’s Quds Force now more or less controls — through proxies — four Arab capitals: Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sana.
.. Iran has actually become the biggest “occupying power” in the Arab world today. But Suleimani may be overplaying his hand, especially if he finds himself in a direct confrontation with Israel in Syria, far from Iran, without air cover.
.. even before this, many average Iranians were publicly asking what in the world is Iran doing spending billions of dollars — which were supposed to go to Iranians as a result of the lifting of sanctions from the Iran nuclear deal — fighting wars in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
.. Iran’s currency is collapsing back home.
.. The rial has lost one-third of its value just this year
.. Israeli military officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin and Suleimani are no longer natural allies. Putin wants and needs a stable Syria where his puppet Bashar Assad can be in control and Russia can maintain a forward naval and air presence and look like a superpower again — on the cheap.
.. Iran’s President Rouhani probably also prefers a stable Syria, where Assad has consolidated his power and that is not a drain on the Iranian budget.
But Suleimani and the Quds Force seem to aspire to greater dominance of the Arab world and putting more pressure on Israel.
Unless Suleimani backs down, you are about to see in Syria an unstoppable force — Iran’s Quds Force — meet an immovable object: Israel.
The fact is, establishing the outlines of a “grand bargain” has never been the hard part. Indeed, the George W. Bush administration negotiated a joint statement in 2005 containing some of the key elements. The hard part has always been nailing down the specifics and enforcing them. Trump and Kim would just leave that to their respective teams, a process that would inevitably involve years of motion with little movement, and ample opportunities for deadlock, breakdown and North Korean cheating.
.. Trump’s supporters, starting with Fox News, would rapturously applaud the outcome, without pausing to remember that they relentlessly attacked President Barack Obama for far more rigorous agreements. Trump’s critics would undoubtedly temper their opposition, because the alternative is catastrophic war. And while Bolton would hate this approach under a different president, he may like the politics of it for Trump for now — and figure that he can press for military action later.
But here’s the rub: There is a real risk that this kind of outcome would work much more to Pyongyang’s advantage than Washington’s.
.. Our partners would take their foot off the sanctions gas, even if our concessions were meant to come later. After a grand, but premature, Trump announcement that he has “solved” the North Korea nuclear issue, South Korea would naturally accelerate its engagement with the North, including its economic ties. China, fearing that U.S.-North Korean engagement would weaken its hand, would scramble (even more than it already has) to offer incentives to increase Beijing’s influence with Kim.
.. we might not even get the full benefits of a freeze on North Korea’s capability. We know North Korea has a history of promising big and then working in secret to advance its program.
.. And since the Trump administration has deliberately degraded our diplomatic capacity and nonproliferation expertise — and Trump won’t be paying attention to what happens after the cameras are turned off — Pyongyang would enjoy an advantage in the period following a summit.
.. North Korea, in this scenario, would be implementing a new version of its old playbook: Make a series of promises in exchange for economic breathing room — and break them later. This could easily raise the risk of war in the medium term.
.. It’s an argument against approaching the summit with politics and pageantry in mind, rather than hardheaded practical concerns.
.. Congress should press Mike Pompeo during his confirmation hearing for secretary of state to acknowledge these risks and account for how he would intend to deal with them
.. Trump won’t be thinking about the risks, only about the political reward. It is up to the rest of us to hold him accountable to deal with the reality