BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with United States President Donald J. Trump. It is expected that the bulk of their meeting will center around Iran. In recent weeks, we have witnessed Israel contend with an exceedingly aggressive Iran. While they’ve always had to worry about Iranian threats, the Iran threat was not directly in their backyard. Ever since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, and the former Obama Administration neglected to shore up America’s position in the region (or to effectively signal that it was not in America’s interest to remain as engaged in the Mideast as it previously had been), Iran took that as an excuse to expand their position in the Middle East.
Thanks to American fecklessness in the region, the Iranians are now operating in Syria. Whereas the Israelis always had to contend with Iranian-backed paramilitaries, such as the Revolutionary Guards Corps, or Iranian-supported terror organizations, such as Hezbollah, it was rare for Israel to worry about large Iranian military forces operating directly across their border. Iran’s alliance with the besieged Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad, has given Iran all of the excuse it needs to attempt to reconstitute its historical empire stretching across the Shiite Muslim community in the region–from Iran through southern Iraq, into Syria and the Levant. Meanwhile, the Russians, seeking greater geopolitical influence in the region, has also piggybacked on the Iranian excursion into Iran, and supports Iran’s movements in the Mideast.
Just a month ago, an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), based off of American designs stolen by Iran in 2011, penetrated Israeli airspace and was shot down by Israel. The Iranian drone was deployed from an Iranian military base in Syria. Israel retaliated by deploying a squadron of F-16 fighters to destroy the Iranian base in Syria. Their bombing run was successful, however, one Israeli F-16 was shot down by an “immense wall of antiaircraft fire.”
It is likely that the F-16 in question was shot down the Syrian air defense system belonging to either the SA-5 or SA-17 air defense platforms. These are Russian-built. The SA-17, in particular, has been a point of concern for Israeli national security policy folks. In 2016, the Israelis attempted to interdict against the delivery of systems like these, as it was suspected that the SA-17 was being sent to Hezbollah. It is likely that these efforts failed, given the F-16 that was shot down on its return from bombing the Iranian base in Syria.
Following these events, the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, phoned Prime Minister Netanyahu and encouraged the Israeli leader not to escalate. The Russian call came on the heels of a failed attempt by Russian soldiers operating under the imprimatur of the “private” Russian military contractor, colloquially known as the Wagner Group, to oust U.S. forces fighting near the contested Syrian town of Deir ez-Zor. The result was the massacre of upwards of 200 Russian troops.
Clearly, the Russians are attempting to shore up their position in the region in the aftermath of this significant setback in Syria for them. The last thing that the Russians wanted was for the Israelis to begin escalating against their proxies in Syria. The phone call between Putin and Netanyahu sounded vague, yet ominous. After all, Russian activity in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union had been on the wane. Since the Syrian Civil War of 2011, the Russian influence in the region has been on the rise. The Russians have long been vying to dominate the world’s energy flows, so as to keep global prices of oil high, in order to buttress the flailing Russian economy (which is highly dependent on the volatile price of oil). This is also part of Russia’s drive to dominate Eurasia’s north-south axis, while China vies to control Eurasia’s east-west trading axis.
On the flip side of these events, is the status quo ex ante of the region. The United States destabilized this paradigm in 2003, when it invaded Iraq. But, since the rise of Donald Trump as president, the United States has rapidly sought to reestablish a semblance of the old order that had existed before 2003. This old order was essentially a balance-of-power dynamic which balanced U.S.-backed Israel and Turkey along with the Arab states, all the meanwhile these powers kept Iran contained. The Iraq War of 2003 and the ill-fated Obama Administration executive agreement with Iran over their nuclear program ended that paradigm. Also, Turkey’s closer relationship with Russia–as well as their growing friendship with Iran–is further complicating the Trump Administration’s foreign policy in the region.
Rather than backing down in the face of Russian pressure (which was initially assumed), Prime Minister Netanyahu came to Washington, D.C. to show the world the continued support for Israel from the United States. Regardless of the details of the meeting, the image of Netanyahu and Trump sitting in the Oval Office, smiling, and concurring with each other on what the number one threat in the region was, Iran, exhibited that the alliance was strong. This alliance is the basis of the Trump Administration’s attempt to rehabilitate some semblance of that old American-backed Mideast order.
Russia is now in precarious place. It needs its relationship with Israel, a leading tech producer, and a critical factor in the Middle East. Yet, Russia’s continued entente with Iran threatens that budding relationship. Also, Russia needs the Arab world–particularly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia–to coordinate with it on energy issues. Russia’s continued alliance with Iran, another leading energy producer, complicates Putin’s efforts to dominate the Middle East.
This show of solidarity between the United States and Israel was the best thing that could have been done after recent developments in the Middle East. Although, there are no guarantees. But, all that the United States can do is to effectively dance with the ones who brought them: the Israelis and the Arabs. And, as Netanyahu remarked following his meeting with Trump today, the Arabs are closer with Israel than ever before–they are united by understandable fears of a rising Iranian hegemony in the region.