Key senators are predicting that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to generate Islamic hostility toward Israel will fail, in part because countries in the Middle East still see Iran as a greater threat to guard against.
“[The Islamic world] is a lot more fragmented,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, told the Washington Examiner. “You have those like Israel and Saudi Arabia who found common cause on what they consider the greater threat.”
That “greater threat” would be Iran, the leading power of the Shia Muslim world and a common enemy of Sunni Arabs such as Saudi Arabia and the Jewish state of Israel. The threat of Iran, coupled with President Trump’s cultivation of both sides, has aided informal partnership where there was once wary hostility.
In the absence of a staggering Arab blowback, Israel may instead have an opportunity to deliver a major blow to Iran in Syria, and might even be able to alter the logic of a civil war that has appeared for years to be a bloody, slow-motion victory for Russia and the Islamic Republic.
“It depends on how far the Israelis go,” Flake said. “They certainly have capacity to do more than they’ve done, but they’ve been obviously restrained. But, yeah, it depends on what they feel they have to do.”
That makes Erdogan’s hostility to Israel, frustrating insofar as he leads a NATO ally and has his own fractious relationship with the United States, less troubling for Israel than it might have been in recent years.
“I don’t think he’ll be very successful,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told the Washington Examiner about Erdogan’s plan.
More interesting for policymakers and analysts are the ramifications of the Israeli-Arab consensus that the 2015 Iran nuclear deal would enhance the Islamic Republic regime’s bid for regional hegemony. There have been notable diplomatic overtures. Saudi Arabia began to allow in March, for instance, Air India to make direct flights through its airspace into Tel Aviv. And some Arab officials have endorsed Israel’s right to defend itself against Iran.
Trump’s decision to withdraw United States from the Iran nuclear agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is one factor in fostering that indirect alignment. The constellation of interests has tightened as Saudi Arabia clashes with Iran’s proxies in Yemen, while Israeli monitors an even larger operation in Syria, where Iranian and Russian forces have rallied to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the eight-year civil war.
“Israel, in result of the JCPOA issue and as a result of certainly what’s happened recently with our embassy there … they probably feel like they have the wind at their back with making sure that their interests are not countered in Syria,” Corker said. “I do think the administration has brought the Israelis and the Arabs closer. This one embassy issue, I think they communicated very well with our Arab friends about what was going to happen.”
The U.S. government also provides “a line of communication” between the Arab states and Israel that aids intelligence-sharing and other diplomacy. Israel put an exclamation point on those missives lately, according to Middle East expert Jonathan Schanzer.
Israel has enjoyed two diplomatic wins — the U.S. exit from the Iran deal and the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem — and the successful Israeli intelligence operation to steal “Iran’s secret nuclear files” from Tehran. Most recently, they bombarded dozens of Iranian positions deep in Syria — including some Russian-supplied air defense systems — with “impunity,” suffering no casualties.
“The recent activities that we’ve seen in Israel have contributed significantly to the impression held by the Arab states that they need to work with Israel,” Schanzer, a vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Examiner after returning from a trip to Israel. “The region is looking at that and beginning to wonder whether the power-dynamic in Syria will remain or whether we’ll see a shift.”
Sen. Chris Coons, another Foreign Relations Committee member, allowed that the Israeli show of force could at least deter Iranian aggression.
“I hope that Iran will take the message that Israel is not going to tolerate their developing bases or permanent foothold in Syria,” the Delaware Democrat told the Washington Examiner. “Russian air power, combined with Iranian ground troops, is what has enabled the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad to survive, and I think it is Israel’s determination to send a strong signal to Iran, [one] that I hope they will heed.”
Despite his partnership with Iran and Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t appear to be motivated to provide those ground forces with modern air-defense systems. Russia announced last week that it would not provide Assad with advanced air-defense systems last week.
That deal that had been under consideration in the weeks following since the more limited Western airstrikes retaliating against Assad’s reported use of chemical weapons. The Kremlin insisted the decision had nothing to do with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow the day of the airstrikes.
Corker doubts that Israel’s involvement in Syria will force a change in Putin’s thinking. “They’re not willing to go deep into Syria,” he said of Israeli forces. “I don’t get the sense that Russia feels tremendously pressured by Israel.”
That might change, depending on how Iranian forces or American negotiators respond to Israel’s emergence as a major combatant in the Syrian theater.
“I think the strikes also clarified to Putin how Iran might be a liability,” Schanzer suggested.