Nikolay Kozhanov | Senior lecturer in the political economy of the Middle East at the European University, Saint Petersburg.
Eventually, it might prove challenging for the United States and Russia to persuade Israel to accept their agreement over southern Syria. First of all, the Israeli political establishment has serious doubts regarding Russian capacities to prevent Iran from expanding its influence in the south of Syria.
Second, the domestic political dynamics in Israel have made Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government a hostage of its political promises given to the electorate. The presence of Iran and its proxies in southern Syria is a red line that Israel’s government cannot avoid enforcing, partly because such inaction would be difficult to explain to its own population.
Third, Moscow has already provided Tel Aviv with all the concessions it can currently give: Russia excluded any discussion of creating a de-escalation zone in southern Syria from the Astana process, although this went against Russia’s initial plans. This, in turn, denied Tehran and Turkey any direct say in the zone’s establishment. Any further compromises will be challenging as this may aggravate Moscow’s cooperation with Tehran, which jealously follows any independent Russian attempts to conduct negotiations over Syria with third parties.
Finally, there is also an unofficial rivalry between Russia and the United States over influence in Israel. This makes the two sides reluctant to exercise pressure on the Israelis. Both Russia and the United States would prefer that the other party compel Israel to accept the conditions of the U.S.-Russian deal.
Randa Slim | Director of the Track II Dialogues initiative at the Middle East Institute and a non-resident fellow at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies Foreign Policy Institute
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s public comments in opposition to the Amman agreement over southern Syria were aimed at getting senior U.S. and Russian officials to address Israeli concerns, they will not succeed in stopping the implementation of the agreement. Both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin are invested in its success, seeing it as a pathway to a new chapter in U.S.-Russian cooperation over Syria.
Netanyahu’s concerns are partly driven by domestic calculations, that of a weak prime minister looking to shore up his credentials with his base. And they are partly a response to what he perceives as serious flaws in implementation. Israeli officials want U.S. troops policing the ceasefire in the de-escalation zone, akin to the role they played in Manbij. Yet U.S. defense officials are reluctant to get sucked into a long-term military commitment in southern Syria. To date, Russian forces are the only game in town.
Israeli officials also argue that the agreement does not do enough to mitigate the threat posed to the Golan Heights by Iranian and Hezbollah forces stationed in the area. Moscow believes it has already made enough concessions to Israel on this matter: It has reached an “open skies” agreement with Israel allowing Israeli aircraft to strike Hezbollah weapons convoys and camps in Syria whenever they need to. It also agreed to negotiate the Amman agreement outside the Astana framework, acceding to U.S. and Israeli wishes to sideline Iran in this process.
While Moscow can promise Israel to not let Iran and Hezbollah use Syria as a launching pad for attacks against the Golan, its track record in reining in Iran and its allies has so far been less than stellar. The Trump administration has prioritized the fight against the Islamic State and might feel that Israel can take care of its own security. Moreover, Washington knows that Netanyahu cannot afford to persist in his opposition to an accord that Trump has publicly endorsed.
Andrew J. Tabler | Martin J. Gross fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
It depends on whether the agreement will be able to keep Iran-supported militia, most notably Hezbollah, out of southern Syria. Evidence that the Assad regime lacks the manpower to retake Syrian territory has come hand in hand with evidence of a substantial deployment of Iranian-backed Shi‘a militias to fill the gap. Israeli officials are reportedly keen to prevent the area of Qunetira, in southwestern Syria, from becoming another southern Lebanon.
The timing of the agreement—and with it Israeli public concern—is related to U.S. choices in eastern Syria. After taking Raqqa, the U.S. will support the Kurdish-based Syrian Democratic Forces to stabilize the liberated areas. But much of the west bank of the Euphrates seems set to be taken by pro-Assad forces, including Shi‘a militias. The real question is: Can the de-escalation agreement in southern Syria take hold and be replicated elsewhere? If so, it could help alleviate human suffering in the short term, allow for safe areas in the medium term, and help bring about a decentralized settlement. If de-escalation doesn’t work, expect a Shi‘a militia surge—particularly from Iraq—into Syria in the coming months. This, combined with Hezbollah’s growth and buildup in southern Lebanon, would prime the charge for a collision between Israel and Iran’s proxies.
Michael Weiss | CNN investigative reporter for international affairs and author, with Hassan Hassan, of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
First, let’s understand each country’s position.
Israel sees Iranian expansionism—and the lengthening shadow of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on its northeastern doorstep—as perhaps the only strategically threatening consequence of the Syrian civil war. Everything else, from the Assad regime’s occasional artillery provocations to the presence of Salafist-jihadists in Deraa and Quneitra, is more manageable for Tel Aviv.
The U.S. has adopted a position that its own anti-Islamic State campaign is now colliding with Qassem Soleimani’s imperial Iranian plans for the Levant, and that this contradiction will either have to be finessed or confronted sooner or later. While Washington has lately adopted a policy of tactical deterrence—bombing IRGC proxies that attack U.S. assets in southern Syria—it hasn’t yet articulated an intelligible plan for the long-term containment of Iran. Whether that comes after the Islamic State is gone from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor is anybody’s guess.
Russia is wary of the IRGC’s unique ambitions but understands that its own interests in Syria are, for better or worse, wholly underwritten by Khomeinist hard power. (One former Russian official told me that without Hezbollah, “we are screwed” in Syria. I found this an honest appraisal.)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has come out against the U.S.-Russian agreement over southern Syria, can ill afford to alienate or antagonize President Donald Trump in the way he liked to do Barack Obama. And he has so far gotten away with striking Hezbollah’s weapons convoys without ruining his transactional relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin or seeing an Israeli jet collide with a Russian one. (The same Russian source told me that Moscow was actually fine with Israel’s actions against Hezbollah, because most of the materiel being sent by Iran to the party is weaponry Russia has lost track of anyway. Welcome to the geopolitics of the Middle East!)
But Netanyahu isn’t constrained here. He can and will authorize attacks against any militias or Iranian positions that encroach on what Israel views as a necessary buffer between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and southwest Syria, and he will incur no penalty from the Pentagon for doing so. Netanyahu will say with justification that he is protecting Israel’s national interest and let Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s mullahs react accordingly.
The U.S., meanwhile, can simply refer a dyspeptic Russian Defense Ministry to its own “de-confliction” channel with the Netanyahu government and say that Washington has no more control over its own principal ally in the region than Moscow has over its allies. Which is to say the agreement over southern Syria will fail, but all parties will pretend otherwise until the next agreement is negotiated.