Since the State of Israel was created 70 years ago, the question has always been not if there would be a war, but when. The only question now is will it be in the north against Iran and its proxies Hezbollah, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Shi’ite Popular Mobilization Units, or will it be in the south against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, or will it originate from over the Green Line among the Arab Palestinians of the West Bank? In the north, the likelihood of war this summer will be increased if US President Donald Trump goes ahead with his plan to withdraw American soldiers from Syria and ends aid to allies in Syria fighting Assad.
This will be taken as a sign to Iran, Russia, Turkey and the whole Muslim world that America has yet again tried to abandon the region, except poor choices in the Middle East have a way of bringing America back with less leverage and not on its own terms.
As Tom Rogan of The Washington Examiner wrote, “President Trump should pay attention to what happened after former President Barack Obama’s hasty 2011 withdrawal from Iraq.
Because Obama’s withdrawal led to the increasing influence of Iran over Iraqi politics... In turn, these policies helped foster the rise of ISIS and led to Obama being forced to return forces to Iraq.”
This decision will hurt both Israeli and American security interests, as it increases the likelihood that Israel will be drawn into a northern war, confronting Russian troops stationed in Syria.
Iranian, Hezbollah, Syrian and Shi’ite PMU’s are positioned, on purpose, next to Russian military sites or have Russian advisers embedded. It is inevitable that Israeli strikes in Syria will kill Russian soldiers, increasing the chances of turning this into a wider regional conflict.
Ronen Bergman in The New York Times wrote, “Israel has been asking Russia to guarantee that the Iranians will leave Syria once the war is over. Those requests have been met with indifference... Russia wants to build a secure foothold in the Middle East and its policy requires it to maintain good relations with Iran...
if anyone was not yet aware of it, Russia is the dominant power in the region.”
The downing of both the Iranian drone in Israeli airspace and an Israeli fighter jet in February brought all the adversaries to the brink of war. Russia, the new sheriff in town, ordered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stand down, and knowing he was alone, he did.
Simon Tisdall opined in The Guardian, “if Iran refuses to leave Syria and continues to expand its military presence...and if Israel continues its cross-border raids, something big, sooner or later, is going to blow.”
A few years ago I spoke to one of the senior international medical personal stationed in Lebanon caring for Syrian refugees. He told me that in every one of the 300 villages he visited in Hezbollah- controlled southern Lebanon missiles were hidden in people’s homes.
Today there are upwards of 150,000 missiles in Hezbollah’s arsenal, enough to overwhelm every layer of Israel’s missile shield, capable of targeting any location in Israel.
To the south, Hamas in Gaza is now feeling like a cornered rat, with no way out. The economic situation is worsening as the Palestinian Authority tightens the noose around their neck. The PA allows Gazans only four hours a day of electricity, while Gaza is an inferno always waiting to explode, fertile ground for radicalization and recruitment to terrorism, with an unemployment rate nearing 50%.
Four years ago Hamas was in a similar economic position, and it choose war as a way to get the attention of the international community. Expect Hamas to have learned from its past three wars with Israel, becoming a more lethal enemy. Israel does not want to take over Gaza, becoming responsible for its services, and it fears that if it overthrows Hamas, an even worse entity may emerge, or uncontrollable chaos.
Last week Hamas did a test run of its newest weapon, mass protests on the border, sending human probes to the security fence, hoping they would be killed and elicit the usual Pavlovian denunciations from anti-Israel groups like Human Rights Watch (HRW), who condemn Israel first and ask questions later. HRW choose not to mention that Hamas even sent a seven-year-old child as bait to cross the border, breaking all international standards. This ongoing test-run may be the starting point for a summer of violence and war.
In Judea and Samaria, PA President Mahmoud Abbas is still trying to show he can be as anti-Israel as Hamas, while the battle to succeed him has already begun. He wants to be remembered as leader of a resistance that did not make peace with the Jews. The rogues’ gallery of would-be successors, from intelligence chief Majid Faraj to former security chiefs Jibril Rajoub and Mohammed Dahlan, to deputy Fatah chairman Mahmoud Aloul, may also decide that agitation and violence this summer may give them the upper hand.
So will there be a war this summer? Nobody knows. But the possibility of a coordinated war aligning Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, all acting in concert, would present Israel with unprecedented challenges. Israel must be prepared for the next war to break out at any time, and even with the best intelligence, events can spiral out of control, even if none of the adversaries are prepared for an all-out war.
The best way to decrease the chance for war in the Levant this summer is for Trump’s new team of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to convince him that it is in American interests to remain in Syria for the immediate future, and be resolute that Iran cannot remain in Syria after the civil war ends.
The writer is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network ™. He regularly briefs members of Congress on the Middle East. He is a contributor to The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, and The Forward.