Why we should pay more attention to Putin than Trump

“Iran is responsible for more than 80% of Israel’s security problems,” said PM Benjamin Netanyahu, at a ceremony marking 25 years since the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in which 29 died. Two years later, he noted, Iran was behind the bombing of the Jewish Community Center (AMIA) building in the same city in which 85 people perished.

Iran supports Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, and of course operates Hezbollah, with whom Israel has fought one vicious war and which has turned most of South Lebanon into a base for attacking Israel with an estimated 130,000 rockets and missiles. On an almost daily basis, the Iranian regime threatens Israel with destruction, calling our country a “cancerous tumor.”

Iran’s program is to control the entire region. It is a certainty that its nuclear weapons program will bear fruit in the next few years. The regime is expanding its sphere of influence eastward to the sea, through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The political arm of its Hezbollah militia, now more an army than a militia, has solidified its control of Lebanon and along with it, the US-supplied Lebanese army. Iran is establishing choke points at critical spots in the Gulf through which much of the world’s oil flows, and (through its sponsorship of rebels in Yemen) the Red Sea. The conservative regimes of the Gulf are trembling with fear, to the point that they have moderated their criticism of Israel and may even cooperate with us to some extent.

Unfortunately, the US has left the building, as far as the Middle East is concerned. It’s been a tragic process. The Bush administration atomized Iraq (instead of simply dealing with Saddam) and destroyed the Sunni/Shia balance of power, allowing Iran to expand into the prostrate corpse of Iraq. Obama went further, actually tilting toward Iran and against its traditional allies, Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. US military budgets have been cut and land and naval forces withdrawn from the region, while Iran is flush with funds as sanctions have been removed and massive ransoms paid.

It is difficult to guess what Trump will do, but from his statements it seems that the last thing he wants is more American involvement in the Middle East. Trump is facing more militant opposition than any US president in my lifetime, and I believe that domestic unrest will get much worse before it gets better. There is even a significant possibility that he will not succeed in serving out his term. The European countries, although they are coming into nuclear missile range of Tehran, are themselves militarily weak and behaving obsequiously in order to sell weapons and aircraft to the newly-unsanctioned Iran.

The Soviets always wanted control of the Middle East since the days of Nasser, but were faced down by the US. Today, Russia has taken advantage of the American and European power vacuum and become the strongest power in the region. Russia’s – that is, Vladimir Putin’s – goals are not entirely clear, but he is allied with the Assad regime in Syria, in whose favor he has turned the tide of the civil war. Russia has developed a port in Tartus and airbase facilities in Khmeimim, near Latakia. It has deployed the latest wide-ranging, stealth-defeating S-400 antiaircraft systems in Syria, as well as Crimea. These facilities give it a strong military foothold in the region.

Israel is in a difficult spot. We seem to have non-hostile relations with Russia, which has not prevented us from bombing convoys and supply depots in Syria to stop the delivery of “game-changing” Iranian weapons to Hezbollah. But despite this, Hezbollah’s buildup continues. Estimates are that Hezbollah could fire thousands of missiles a day at Israel, and our defensive systems couldn’t stop all or even most of them.

I asked Jonathan Spyer, one of the most well-informed experts on Hezbollah, whether he thought war with Hezbollah was inevitable. His answer was that it is unlikely while Hezbollah is enmeshed in the Syrian war, but will become much more likely when the war ends. The intervention of Russia has given the Assad regime a new lease on life, and although it is almost certain that the regime will not control all of the territory that it had before the war, it will likely defeat the Sunni rebels and Islamic State forces that it is fighting, reducing the pressure on Hezbollah. That is when we will need to start worrying here in Israel.

Despite the fact that Hezbollah is the greatest direct threat to our security today, Netanyahu correctly noted that it is the Iranian regime that stands behind it, finances it and tightly controls it. This presents a problem for our strategy of deterrence. Although we can (and do) credibly threaten that if attacked we will turn southern Lebanon where the rocket launchers are into a lunar-landscaped parking lot, and indeed destroy the infrastructure of the state of Lebanon so thoroughly that it will take decades to recover, the Lebanese aren’t calling the shots – the Iranians are, and they are ready to fight to the last Lebanese soldier or civilian.

The conclusion is that for deterrence to work, we need to deter Iran, a nation with a land area of 636,000 square miles and more than 80 million people, which is presently undergoing a serious military buildup and will very shortly have nuclear weapons. I can see only one threat powerful enough to do that, and that is a nuclear threat – a balance of terror like the one that held between the US and the Soviet Union in the latter part of the 20th century. Israel would need to convey to the Iranians that a massive missile attack from Hezbollah will trigger a nuclear response – against Iran.

This would be a much less stable and more frightening balance of terror than the US-Soviet one. For one thing, the distances are so short that there is very little time to decide how to react in the event of an alert. For another, the Iranian nuclear program is spooking other countries into obtaining nuclear weapons, for sale by actors like Pakistan or North Korea. Saudi Arabia is the most likely candidate to go nuclear this way, but Egypt is also a possibility. Then there is the destabilization that could be provoked by large-scale terrorism, even using nuclear materials, if not nuclear bombs. Deterrence by nuclear threat is not a good long-term solution.

The solution to the Hezbollah rocket problem may come from Russia. I don’t believe that a destructive war between Israel and Hezbollah is in Russia’s interests, and Putin’s actions so far seem to indicate that he also feels this way. Russia might restrain Hezbollah, or even force it to divest itself of the rocket system in the south. I am not sure what inducement Israel could offer to Russia, but this is at least a possibility.

In the past 15 years or so, the Middle East has irrevocably changed. The large Arab states created after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan – are in chaos or barely avoiding it. Iran is daily becoming more powerful and advancing its program to create a “Shiite crescent” all the way to the Mediterranean (and yes, we seem to be in its way). The US has lost most of its ability to influence events here, and Russia is now the main player. Even China is showing an interest.

In Israel, we seem not to have noticed. The daily newspapers are devoted to events in the US, to speculation about what Trump will do or analysis of his somewhat random remarks. But perhaps we should be more interested in what happens in Moscow than Washington?

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One Response to Why we should pay more attention to Putin than Trump

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is an extremely grim and my guess is very accurate picture of the situation. I do not think Trump has any kind of plan of action of how to restrain the Iranians or Hizbollah. Talk is one thing.
    I do believe we should be extremely concerned about what Putin does. However I do not think he is capable of doing anything like moving Hizbollah to divest of its missiles in Southern Lebanon.
    The picture is grimmer than grim.
    At some point perhaps we will have to make it publicly clear that if Israel is attacked in a massive way neither Lebanon nor greater Tehran will continue to exist.
    But then we will not a very special determined kind of leadership-one whose threats will be taken absolutely seriously.

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