“Sooner or later, Israel will want to clean house and strike Hezbollah” – L’Express

Sooner or later Israel will want to clean house and

It is a strike which undoubtedly marks a turning point in the confrontation between Israel and Iran. By destroying an annex of the Iranian embassy in Damascus, Syria, on April 1, the Jewish state humiliated Tehran, which in return promised to “slap” its adversary. Lecturer at Lyon II University and researcher at the Washington Institute think tank, Fabrice Balanche analyzes for L’Express the very serious risks of an escalation in the Middle East. Arabic-speaking specialist in Syria and Lebanon, he publishes Lessons from the Syrian crisis (Odile Jacob), essay which shows to what extent the war in Syria represented a major geopolitical event, with Russia and Iran inflicting a first defeat on Western countries by succeeding in keeping Bashar al-Assad in power.

L’Express: A strike attributed to Israel destroyed the Iranian consulate in Damascus, notably killing the commander of the Iranian Al-Quds Force for Syria and Lebanon. How serious is the risk of escalation in the Middle East today?

Fabrice Balanche: It is obvious that Israel is behind the strike because of the type of missile used, which is used to collapse a building surgically, with very little collateral damage. Israel shows Iran that the Revolutionary Guards are not safe anywhere, including in a diplomatic compound. Until now, they had targeted Iranian bases on the outskirts of Damascus and Hezbollah arms depots. There, the Jewish state is clearly raising its tone towards Iran, but also towards the Syrian regime. At the start of the war in Syria, the Israelis preferred a weakened Bashar al-Assad rather than the unknown, telling themselves that the border with the Golan had remained calm since 1974. But, for two or three years, they have realized that the country has become a Russian-Iranian protectorate, and increasingly Iranian, given that the Russians are occupied in Ukraine. In exchange for military aid from Tehran, Assad has his hands and feet tied anyway.

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Furthermore, Israel also seeks to prove that the war in Gaza goes beyond Hamas alone. He intends to remind Westerners, increasingly lukewarm in their support, that there is a new Cold War underway, and that it pits them against the Russia-Iran axis, with China behind.

What will Iran do?

For Tehran, this is a real humiliation. But I do not think that the Iranian regime is acting openly, preferring to accuse Israel and the United States of flouting international law, as if it had not violated diplomatic forums in the past. Hezbollah was the first to respond to this strike. We therefore risk seeing attacks coming from Lebanon. However, Israel, wishing to do a major clean-up, is undoubtedly just waiting for this to launch an offensive in the north. They will sooner or later strike Hezbollah, which is much more dangerous than Hamas with its thousands of missiles pointed at the country, and which poses the threat of a potential ground offensive on the Galilee.

You recall in your book that the presence of Iran in Syria as in Lebanon is perceived as an existential threat by Israel…

The main threat in the eyes of Israelis is Iran and its desire to destroy their country. They take very seriously Khamenei’s statements presenting the Jewish state as a tumor that must be eradicated. The destruction of Israel is a mobilizing utopia of the Islamic revolution. It is undoubtedly one of the last dogmas remaining from the 1979 revolution.

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Iran’s other objective is to remove American troops stationed in eastern Syria and Iraq. These troops are harassed by Shiite militias. And, in Iraq, Iran is pushing the government of Mohammed Chia al-Soudani to ask for the Americans to leave.

How did the war in Syria mark a turning point in the geopolitical game?

The West wanted to bring down Assad, as they did with Gaddafi in 2011. But, despite all the means implemented, and despite the help of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the Iranians and Russians managed to avoid the fall of the Syrian regime. Since then, the Russians have replaced the Westerners in Libya. Turkey has, from 2016, switched to the Russian-Iranian camp in Syria, due to the Kurdish question, but also to Erdogan’s strong Eurasianist tropism, which brings him closer to the Moscow-Tehran axis. As we failed to bring down Assad, our allies lost confidence in our abilities to impose regime change. Many have therefore moved closer to the Russians or the Chinese. In sub-Saharan Africa, Mali and Burkina Faso have fallen into the Russian camp. We no longer have the means to impose sanctions against a country in order to make it evolve towards more democracy, as was the case in the 1990s. Because, otherwise, this country turns towards Russia and China. We have thus returned to a Cold War situation. The Syrian conflict truly marked the end of Western hegemony over the world, which had lasted since 1989. It is a defeat for the Westerners and the end of a historical cycle.

“The Syrian conflict marked the end of Western hegemony over the world”

You are very critical of the errors of French diplomacy in Syria. For what ?

I really experienced France’s blindness to what was really happening in Syria on a daily basis. I also experienced it in my flesh. Foreign Affairs was not kind to me during this period. If I left for the United States in 2015, it was because I was refused numerous positions, simply because I had announced that Bashar al-Assad would not fall without Western intervention. My laboratory at the CNRS was also closed under pressure from academics close to Islamists, like François Burgat. However, history has proven me right. I am by no means pro-Assad, but I lived in Syria and Lebanon for a long time. I experienced on the ground the communitarianism at work in these countries. In 2000, in my thesis, I already wrote that Syria was in the situation of Yugoslavia when Tito died and that the system would experience a major crisis after around ten years. I had anticipated the crash, but, at the same time, I knew the resilience of the Syrian regime, with its Alawite pillar. And I saw Islamism corrupting Syrian Sunni society. The Quai d’Orsay announced the imminent fall of Assad, but this was not based on anything concrete. It was just an ideological vision, magical thinking on the part of diplomats, dictated by the ministers of the time, Alain Juppé then Laurent Fabius.

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At the international level, we were also unable to anticipate Russia’s reaction. In France, we dreamed of the divorce of Russia and Iran, speaking of an unnatural relationship, while it was nevertheless obvious that these two powers had forged a lasting alliance in Syria to constitute a Eurasian axis the full consequences of which we see today. On June 2, 2015, The world published an article, supplied by the Quai d’Orsay, with the title “Moscow distances itself from Damascus”. I was then in Syria for my research, and I noticed the opposite. Three months later, there was a direct intervention by Russia in Syria, a complete surprise for the West. Likewise, in February 2022, we were convinced in France that the Russians would not attack Ukraine. The United States was convinced of this, because it knew how to learn the lessons of the war in Syria. But, at home, the diplomatic cell of the Elysée and the Quai d’Orsay did not change their software after what was a real fiasco in Syria. These diplomats do not work in the field and think above all about their career, going in the direction of their leader. But if we want to remain a significant power in the world, we need to adopt a much more realistic approach.

How did Putin use Syria to send a message?

We have to come back to Libya in 2011. The Russians consider that they were duped by the West. Russia and China then abstained from voting on resolution 1973, believing that it in no way provided for the overthrow of Gaddafi. In Syria, when Putin saw that Assad was capable of resisting the rebellion, the Russian regime saw an opportunity to defeat Westerners who, during the Arab Spring, had not hesitated to abandon their thirty-year-old allies. years, Ben Ali and Mubarak. Putin sent a message to dictators and authoritarian leaders around the world: “If you are with the West, the slightest mood of your population can bring you down; but if you are with me, I will support you, even if you bomb a third party of your population and that you use chemical weapons.”

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Since the intervention in Iraq in 2003, the West no longer wants to send ground troops. Their strength is aviation. But Russia has been able to develop very sophisticated anti-aircraft systems. In Syria, there was a standoff between the West and Putin, with the Russians letting it be known that they had the means to prevent bombings. When the Syrian regime reused chemical weapons in 2017 and the West decided to bomb Syria, they had to negotiate a few harmless strikes with Putin to save honor. Russia was able to demonstrate its air supremacy against a rebellion that would have prevailed if the Syrian regime had been left to its own devices. But it has also proven the supremacy of its artillery, which is certainly not very sophisticated, but is capable of firing thousands of shells per day, as we see today in Ukraine. In Syria, the Russians have thus demonstrated the quality of their equipment as well as their capacity to deter the West. Obviously, this has not escaped the notice of a whole bunch of authoritarian regimes, which have since placed themselves under Russian protection.

Russia’s main weakness comes from its economy. The Kremlin does not have the means to rebuild Syria and bail out the regime. But we must add China into the equation, a power which allows, for example, Iran to prosper despite Western sanctions. In the 1990s, Saddam Hussein did not have Russia or China to help him against sanctions. But today, Syria can circumvent these sanctions by relying on Iran, China and Russia. Ultimately, the sanctions imposed by the West only push the targeted countries to turn more towards the East. If again we adopted these measures with the aim of launching a military intervention like in 2003 in Iraq. But we know today that such ground intervention is no longer possible…

Today, according to you, the Middle East is no longer the preserve of Westerners…

Erdogan’s Turkey switched to the side of Russia and Iran from 2016. Now, it is Saudi Arabia’s turn to distance itself. When, in September 2022, Joe Biden came to ask Mohammed bin Salman [MBS] to increase oil production, it did the opposite. Saudi Arabia’s emancipation from the Quincy Pact represents a major change in international relations. MBS wanted to get rid of the Houthis in Yemen in 2017, but the Americans opposed it. From there, the Houthis fired missiles at Saudi Arabia, calling into question MBS’s Vision 2030, who is extremely angry with his American allies for this. The real source of tension between Saudi Arabia and the Western camp was not [l’assassinat du journaliste Jamal] Khashoggi, but indeed Yemen, which endangers the Saudi project, and the very existence of the kingdom. The Saudis consider that the Americans are not reliable enough to protect them. They therefore negotiated with the Iranians under the aegis of China, with the deal of rehabilitating Assad within the Arab League.

* Lessons from the Syrian crisis, by Fabrice Balanche. Odile Jacob, 352 p., €24.90.