Dozens and dozens of mortars and rockets were launched at civilian targets in Israel from Gaza on Monday and Tuesday, marking the biggest such barrage since 2014.
In all, by Tuesday evening, the count was at least 120 projectiles. A number of them were intercepted by Iron Dome (although many of the shorter-range mortars would have had too low a trajectory for Iron Dome to react to). A live blog is being maintained by Jewish Press here.
Hamas reportedly launched the initial volley on Monday, 28 May. Responsibility for the ensuing onslaught was claimed by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), an Iran-backed terror group founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose attacks in the last 24 hours Hamas acknowledges authorizing.
Israel has responded in the usual way with air attacks on Hamas and PIJ targets in Gaza. A bigger, more sustained response is predictable if the rocket and mortar assault resumes.
The larger strategic situation is likely to dictate Israel’s follow-on actions, however. Surprisingly little is being made of that bigger picture – at least as it appears from here – although Benjamin Netanyahu alluded to it in statements on Tuesday.
The big flick on what’s happening is that the Syrian regime is moving forces into Daraa Province in southwestern Syria, next to the Golan Heights, in preparation for a major push to drive out the Free Syrian Army rebels and the ISIS enclave clinging tenaciously to its border position within range of the Quneitra crossing.
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) May 29, 2018
See maps constructively depicting Syrian army’s operational intentions at these tweet streams.
— -GEROMAN 🇸🇾 – (@GeromanAT) May 29, 2018
On the first part of the operation #SAA will focus on the Eastern part of Daraa with three important goals:
– Expelled rebels from Lahaj salient
– Secure Naseeb Border Crossing
– Liberate the remaining districts under rebel control in #Daraa city (7) pic.twitter.com/QmiyX7vAEe
— @Suriyak (@Suriyakmaps) May 28, 2018
This move has significant implications for the approach to Israel from Syrian territory. And that’s why, with Israel as a stakeholder in the outcome of the fight, the other outside powers – Iran, Russia, Jordan, and the U.S. – have been scurrying around over the last week trying to shape conditions and events.
The position of the United States is that we will not allow the Assad regime to entrench Iran-backed forces next to the Golan Heights, in the area now occupied by ISIS and FSA forces. A de-escalation zone has been in effect there, brokered by the U.S. and Russia, since November 2017, and the State Department invoked the zone’s importance in a statement on Friday, emphasizing that we expect Assad not to violate the de-escalation status quo by launching a new assault.
S. #Syria: for 1st time US officially warns Assad in case of an offensive in S. de-escalation zone (#Daraa–#Quneitra), saying "firm & appropriate measures" will be taken in that case. pic.twitter.com/OPvousEstw
— Qalaat Al Mudiq (@QalaatAlMudiq) May 26, 2018
Superficially, this could be seen as putting us at odds with Israel – if, that is, we accept reporting in the last week that Israel and Russia have reached an accord by which Russia will guarantee that the Assad push into Daraa doesn’t open the territory there to Iran.
The theory behind this theme is that it’s to Israel’s benefit if Assad controls the border region, rather than either Iran or ISIS and an assortment of rebels. Russia would thus be solving a problem by fostering that outcome.
I’m inclined to doubt that Netanyahu is going out on a limb to place faith in Russian guarantees. A clearer-eyed view, I think, is that the U.S. and Israel share in good faith the goal of preventing Iran from dominating Daraa. But Israel, in her own right, has every reason to negotiate that point vigorously with Russia. We shouldn’t expect Jerusalem to simply rely on Washington for strategies or methods.
Russia, as always, would prefer to hold the threat of Iran in Daraa as a bargaining chip, for as long as the chip can be made use of. Holding the preponderance of such chips in any multi-chip situation is Russia’s usual aspiration. It puts her in the broker’s seat. In practicing geopolitical power projection, Russia is fonder of dynamic situations in which she progresses incrementally by deploying leverage, than of driving toward goals quickly and conclusively.
That often means Russia sees benefit in continued indecision, and therefore bloodshed and strategic instability. Moscow doesn’t tolerate that well on Russia’s own borders, but unlike the Western nations, the Russian regime has no compulsory domestic accountability – at least not on an electoral-cycle timeline – for failing to stabilize and conclude interventions farther abroad.
Iran, meanwhile, is facing a major crisis for her strategic plans in the Middle East. The U.S. has turned the tables on the nuclear “agreement,” at the same time Israel has launched a campaign to destroy much of the stockpile of military equipment Iran has been building up in Syria. Both changes are important; the change in U.S. policy in particular means that America has no stake now in incentivizing Iran to stay in the “deal,” by tolerating bad behavior from Tehran all over the Middle East. American warnings about Syria are now more likely to be serious.
These developments are significant enough, but Iran is also now facing the wild-card prospect of rejiggering her posture in Iraq, after Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his party gained the largest number of votes in the 12 May 2018 election.
Iran, and Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, have had an established M.O. with Iraq under Haider al-Abadi for a number of years. Moqtada al-Sadr (a scowling rabble-rouser whom U.S. troops referred to as “Mookie” back in 2003, when he was in his 20s) wants the U.S. out of Iraq, but he is not politically aligned with Iran, preferring a more independent posture overall. If he forms the new government, it is not clear that Iran and the Iran-backed militias will continue to have the quiescence they have enjoyed from the al-Abadi government.
Iran could probably establish such an understanding with al-Sadr. But it is not a given in May 2018 – and that reality looms larger because of the other major changes in geopolitical conditions. A changing of the guard in Baghdad has the potential to imperil Iran’s corridor to the Mediterranean. At the least, it could make Iran pay a higher price for keeping it.
The overall situation could go either way at this point. Iran’s radical regime could pull in its horns and try to ride out the adverse tide and regroup. But it could also go for broke, and determinedly exploit Assad’s move into Daraa – of which we can be sure Iranian-backed forces form a part, whatever public affirmations are made to the contrary – to try and create a major geopolitical crisis.
The next few weeks will show which. Israel has to be ready to react in the Golan and southern Lebanon, as well as in the center of the country, closer to Gaza. I would predict Jordan will ensure Judea and Samaria are not accessible for adverse use against Israel, as Egypt will (try to) do in the Sinai Peninsula.
All things being equal, we would expect the European powers to tacitly accept the U.S. position on Daraa and Iran’s access to it. It’s an interesting question whether all things will remain equal, however. George Soros’ veiled threat (“warning”) this week about the market vulnerability of the EU is rather remarkably timed, especially given its focused allusion to the renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran.
There’s a whiff in Soros’ comments of a warning that Europe needs to get in line and oppose Trump’s Iran policy, or face economic consequences; i.e., of the kind Soros implicitly knows how to bring about.
Beyond the Middle East’s geopolitics, however, there is also a crisis building for Europe and the EU, with “exit” movements and national-autonomy politics gathering steam across the continent. The UK is in top-level turmoil right now – the fight raging as we speak over how real the “Brexit” will be, and what Britain’s basic character will be going forward – and the electoral outcome in Italy has the same quality. Germany, on the other hand, is heading full-steam in the direction of enforced EU collectivism, at least officially. Eastern Europe is pulling hard in the other direction.
This isn’t a stable situation. Europe is at a tipping point, but hasn’t tipped yet, one way or the other. The Iranian regime isn’t the only actor in the mix that may be going for broke in the coming days. For ideological partisans of EU-style supranationalism, following America’s lead on Iran and the Middle East would be a very high-cost concession, and it’s not unlikely they will try to fight it.
The correlation of forces is not in their favor, however. Maybe that will deter them, if they evaluate the risk accurately. George Soros can make meaningful threats to the EU because the EU is vulnerable, overleveraged both economically and politically. It is not in a position to “fight” effectively. Falling on its own members with gnashing teeth would be the opposite of a smart move. EU-ism can’t win that way.
On a similar principle, Israel can pose a decisive counter to Iran in Syria because Iran’s position there has eroded badly, just in the last month. Iran can’t win by trying to destabilize a set of conditions that represent national security red lines for at least half a dozen other nations.
The striking thing about the current situation is that if the opponents of America and Israel go for broke, they are more likely than they have been for a long time to lose big. Mid-2018 is not the time I would choose to make Israel fight in the Golan or Gaza. It’s also not when I would push the voters of Europe beyond endurance with economic surprises or punishments.
If such crises are provoked, what America’s and Israel’s opponents could lose is breathtaking. In the world’s Great Crossroads, the junction of Europe, Asia, and Africa, they could indeed reset the map – but not in the way they intended.