The Middle East enters a particularly volatile and dangerous period as the Syrian civil war moves towards its end stages. Bashar al-Assad, the leader who uses chemical weapons against his own people, will likely be the victor and reunification will be on his terms. The West will have little say. The leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey met in Ankara last month to determine Syria’s future, and this accurately reflects today’s disposition of forces inside Syria. With the defeat of Islamic State, the US and its allies — Australia included — have largely vacated the field. Targeted allied airstrikes may have limited the use of chemical weapons, but they have done nothing to alter the basic trajectory of the war or loosen Assad’s grip on power.
As Assad and his enablers, Russia and Iran, go about reconquering the rebel-held parts of Syria, the risk of a collision between Israel and Iran grows. Israel has made clear, through word and deed, that a permanent Iranian military presence and the establishment of Iranian military infrastructure inside Syria is a red line. Israel will act militarily as it has in recent weeks. For Israel, preventing the Iranian military from entrenching on its northern and eastern borders is a core strategic interest.
Iran, however, having invested so much in Assad’s survival, is bent on reaping a return and seems determined to build a land corridor to the Mediterranean and resupply routes for its proxy militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah, and to acquire military bases and weapons-manufacturing facilities inside Syria to apply pressure on Israel. Israeli satellite images show five Syrian air bases where it is claimed Iranian Revolutionary Guards are stationed.
In recent weeks, the proxy struggle over several years between Israel and Iran has threatened to turn into a direct confrontation. On February 10, Iran flew what appears to have been an armed drone into Israeli airspace. The Israeli air force attacked the air base from which the drone was launched and Syrian air defences shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet. Then, on April 9, Israel launched a direct attack against the same air base, killing seven Iranians. Early yesterday there were further airstrikes inside Syria. It seems sophisticated weaponry, including Iranian surface-to-surface missiles, were targeted.
Iran has promised to settle the score. If and when Iran attempts to do so, and Israel reacts, there is a genuine risk of a full-fledged conflict, and one that has the potential to pull in a host of outside powers, including Russia and Turkey. This is how wars start in the Middle East.
Added to this volatile mix is the future of the Iran nuclear deal. Next week Donald Trump will be required to recertify the deal for it to remain in effect. It’s an agreement about which the US President has been scathing — the “worst deal ever”.
Revelations from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early yesterday will have hardened his hostility towards it. The tranche of Iranian documents Israel released, which appear genuine, damn Iran’s behaviour.
They make clear that Iran had an active, sophisticated and co-ordinated nuclear weapons program, known as Project Amad; that it sought to preserve and expand the nuclear know-how acquired even after formally shelving the project; and that it lied to UN agencies, and the world, about the true nature of its nuclear activities.
The Iran nuclear deal has serious shortcomings. It has failed to transform Iran’s destabilising regional behaviour or strengthen moderating political forces within Iran, as its architects had hoped. It does not address Iran’s ballistic missile development or its support to terrorist groups across the region. And when key sunset provisions expire, from 2025 onwards, restrictions on Iran’s centrifuge and enrichment capacity and its ability to stockpile enriched uranium will be progressively lifted. When coupled with clear evidence of Iranian intent to acquire nuclear weapons, these shortcomings are grave indeed.
In its more modest aim to impose a freeze on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and buy some time, the deal has been a qualified success. Iran, which was marching towards a breakout nuclear weapons capability in 2015, had its ambitions set back at least a decade.
Rather than abandoning the deal, Trump should listen to his European allies, including Britain, France and Germany. He should seek to widen the existing agreement with possible side deals that cover Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional interference, and that seek to extend the sunset clauses. He should use the leverage provided by the explosive Israeli revelations to demand stricter conditions on Iran’s behaviour.
With all its imperfections, the nuclear deal is a net stabilising factor. Seek to improve it and use brinkmanship if necessary to compel a renegotiation — as Trump has done with North Korea. But do not cancel it in the absence of a credible alternative.
Malcolm Turnbull will have much to discuss with French President Emmanuel Macron as he visits this week. But they should make sure time is found to discuss the Middle East, given the dangerous new phase it has entered.
Published as an opinion piece in The Australian, 2 May 2018