If Israel and Iran want to set new rules for the game played on the Syrian front, and if they would rather avoid all-out war, they should look back at the understandings reached between Israel and former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Lebanon back in 1976. Both parties could stand to learn from what happened there.
After the events of “Black September” in 1970, the PLO was expelled from Jordan, taking up residence in Lebanon. This led to a conflict with the Christian population, which appealed to the Syrian army for help. Long seeing themselves as the patrons of Lebanon, responsible for maintaining the country’s complicated arrangement between rival communities, Syria decided in 1976 to intervene in order to hinder the Palestinians. Two Syrian divisions took up positions in Lebanon, effectively transferring power from the Lebanese to the Syrians for the next six years. As often in cases like this, the Syrians announced that they just wanted to help maintain order. Once that was achieved, they would return to their bases back home, or at least that’s what they said. But the Syrians “forgot” to return home. Once they were trapped in the Lebanese quagmire, the Syrians changed sides, throwing their support to the PLO instead of the Christians, who invited them.
When the Syrian army deployed in Lebanon, Israel realized that it had a new problem on its northern front. On the other hand, it had no interest in getting into another conflict with the Syrians just three years after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and two years after the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement reached with Damascus. As a result, the first Yitzhak Rabin government determined the precise parameters of what would be grounds for war with Syria and what it could live with. It then relayed its decision to legendary US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Kissinger was already familiar with both parties because of his intense involvement in achieving the Separation of Forces Agreement after the Yom Kippur War. This time, he returned to reach a series of understandings (and not a formally signed agreement), which became known as the “red lines.” Syria was Israel’s most belligerent neighbor at the time. It was the last party to sign a disengagement agreement (and without an “interim agreement,” like Egypt) after the Yom Kippur War, and even that agreement was signed by a senior Egyptian officer rather than a Syrian official. It was, therefore, obvious that the red lines reached in 1976 were just understandings, rather than some official agreement, which could otherwise be interpreted as hinting to the possibility of recognizing Israel.
There were three red lines: First, Syria would not deploy surface-to-air missiles in Lebanon; second, the Syrian military would not fly its fighter jets in the territory south of the Beirut-Damascus Highway; and third, the Syrian army would not operate south of the city of Sidon in southern Lebanon. These understandings remained in effect until the Syrians violated them in 1981. In response, Israel launched a military operation, shot down Syrian jets and ensured quiet in this sector for a decade.
In many ways, the complex situation in Syria today is reminiscent of what happened in Lebanon over 40 years ago. The Syrian government is very weak. The most influential player in the country is Iran, which has stationed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the county’s most important military force, at bases in Syria. Meanwhile, the two major superpowers play only a secondary role in the country. Under US President Donald Trump, the United States is unwilling to accede to Israel’s request that it leave its 2,000 troops in Syria, and those troops are expected to withdraw soon. On the other hand, the Russians are staying, a situation that Israel seems to prefer over a Russian withdrawal. Israel believes it can talk to the Russians, and the overall assumption is that their global interests obligate them to adopt a more measured approach to the region. Nevertheless, the Russians will go home one day, too. All that remains to be seen is whether that happens sooner or later.
Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is considered little more than a puppet of Iran, so talks with it are meaningless for now. In other words, the most important player in the country is Iran. Syria is, however, an important link in the “Shiite arc,” which encompasses Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Hence, Iran has no intention of foregoing control there. As far as Israel is concerned, Iran poses a real threat, because of its actions, the threats issued by its leaders and its firm support for Hezbollah and Hamas. By sending an armed drone toward Israel on Feb. 10, Tehran was signaling that it is toying with the idea of a direct conflict with Israel.
While the Benjamin Netanyahu government has no interest in a direct conflict with Iran — whether on Syrian territory or elsewhere — it still seems to be willing to take significant risks in its operations against the Iranian forces, particularly in preventing Iranian drones from penetrating Israeli airspace or the transfer of precision weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. As of now, Israel is walking on a very narrow tightrope. It is hard to assess what Iran really wants when it comes to a potential conflict with Israel. There are, however, common cited analyses of the differences between the approach taken by the IRGC under Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, who is responsible for IRGC activity outside of Iran, and the more circumspect approach of Hassan Rouhani’s government.
As happened with the Syrian crisis in Lebanon back in 1976, Israel and Iran can avoid a military conflict by reaching a series of understandings — which can be denied publicly — that would not require mutual recognition, but would rely on third-party involvement.
The important question, of course, is, “Where is the new Kissinger?” Looking back, at the post-Kissinger generation and up until today, very few people could have filled the role that he played. Someone from the White House would be a natural fit for the role, but the relationship between the Trump administration and Iran would preclude the United States from serving as a mediator. It could, in theory, be a special emissary of the United Nations’ secretary-general or some European party acting on behalf of the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. It should be someone with the backing of a structure that is capable of investigating any complaints of violations of these understandings, like the understandings on a partial cease-fire reached between Israel and Lebanon — more accurately, between Israel and Hezbollah — back in 1996.
It is hard to say whether such an initiative would succeed, even if initiated by some third party. However, given the impending US withdrawal, an attempt at reaching such understandings seems necessary. It is quite possible that the parties will be able to live with red lines that do not provide everything they want, as long as they offer some kind of modus vivendi. If no such attempt is made, we may be stuck waiting for the outcome of the next unanticipated mishap. Should that happen, we could find ourselves entangled in a bloody conflict that Israel does not want and that Iran probably doesn’t want either.