By Marc Champion , Jonathan Ferziger , and David Wainer
A decade ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin chose the West’s annual security conference in Munich to say “what I really think” about the U.S. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu plans to use this week’s event for a similarly blunt wake-up call about the threat of war with Iran.
“The prime minister will tell the world if you want to avoid a huge war in Israel — stop Iran,” said Yaakov Amidror, a retired general and former Israeli national security adviser.
Netanyahu has used other high-profile platforms — including the U.S. Congress and United Nations General Assembly — to highlight the existential threat he sees from Iran’s alleged nuclear-weapons program. On Sunday, when he addresses the Munich Security Conference, he’s expected to focus on Iran’s conventional military entrenchment in Syria.
Israel feels increasingly abandoned as regional partners prioritize their often conflicting interests in Syria’s seven-year civil war, now that a common enemy — Islamic State — is largely defeated. That has left Israeli leaders with an unpalatable choice: Tolerate a permanent Iranian military presence on their border, or risk going to war to prevent it.
Israeli officials believe the U.S. and Europe have yet to fully grasp the likelihood of military escalation. Meanwhile, U.S. reluctance to enter the war in Syria has left it with insufficient force on the ground to dictate terms to Iran. Many Arab nations share Netanyahu’s concern over the Iranian threat, but won’t publicly support Israel for domestic political reasons.
Russia has more leverage to assure Israeli interests in Syria, and Netanyahu has held multiple discussions with Putin to ensure Israeli jets can attack when necessary in Syria without clashing with Russian forces. But Moscow now appears to be prioritizing ties with Iran, which is emerging as its strategic partner.
“They like Israel, but they need Iran,” Amos Gilad, who recently stepped down as director of political-military affairs at Israel’s Defense Ministry, said in a phone interview. “They won’t remove Iran from Syria for two reasons: First of all it doesn’t suit their policy, and second of all they can’t.”
Netanyahu’s calls to “fix or nix” the international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program have failed to sway much of the trans-Atlantic security establishment that will be represented in Munich. He’s hoping a warning on the dangers of escalation in Syria — already the source of a seismic refugee shock in Europe — will get a more sympathetic hearing.
This month alone, U.S. aircraft killed as many as 200 Russian mercenaries as they attacked Kurdish forces in eastern Syria; Turkey threatened to expand its invasion of northern Syria to take on Kurds embedded with U.S. advisers; and Israel shot down an Iranian drone that breached its airspace.
For the first time since 1982, Israel lost a combat aircraft to hostile fire as it returned from air strikes in Syria. Israel’s retaliation destroyed as much as half of Syria’s air-defense system, according to the Israeli military.
Of most concern to Israel are Iran’s efforts to establish a land corridor to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria, where Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders oversee thousands of militants. Netanyahu says Israel won’t tolerate Iran’s quest for a permanent military foothold on its doorstep.
Israel’s perception that the balance of forces in the region is tipping against it is well-founded, according to Emile Hokayem, senior Middle East fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies, a London think tank.
“It’s undeniable that Iran has been building up a serious military capability in Syria, which basically doubles the length of a possible front line in any possible future Hezbollah-Israel showdown,” Hokayem said, referring to the Iran-backed militia and political party in Lebanon. “Just from the point of view of the Iron Dome system, it’s unlikely to be able to absorb missiles coming from such a wide front line.”
Israel says Hezbollah already has more than 100,000 rockets stored in Lebanon, and Israel’s air force has conducted dozens of strikes in Syria to prevent the group from acquiring more powerful and accurate missiles. Both the European Union and U.S. list Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization.
Calling All Militias
Iran’s successful deployment of Shiite militias in Syria is another potential game changer, according to Hokayem. In a June speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said he would enlist militias from Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight Israel if war erupts.
Russian officials defend Iran’s military presence in Syria as legitimate. Iran says its role is essentially advisory, and is based on requests from President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
Both Sergei Lavrov and Mohammad Zarif, the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers, are due to attend the Munich conference. So are their counterparts from Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Even with all external participants in the Syrian conflict represented at Munich, it isn’t clear Netanyahu will be able to muster the support Israel seeks — any more than Putin succeeded in doing so a decade ago.
“In the end,” said Amidror, now a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, “Israel is alone.”