War clouds are gathering again over the Middle East. Since last month’s flare up between Israel and Iran in the crowded airspace over Syria, the stars are moving into ominous alignment. After seven years of civil war, Syria’s battleground still sucks in foreign powers, pitting Nato allies US and Turkey against each other or the US against Russia. But these are mere sparks, struck mostly off proxies, compared to what might, if mismanaged or miscalculated, turn into a new region-wide war.
The backdrop is threatening. President Donald Trump’s erratic administration in the US, Saudi Arabia under its impulsive young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known as MbS), and Israel — where veteran prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is clinging on at the head of an ultra-nationalist coalition in the face of serial corruption probes. All are moving up a gear in their bellicosity towards Iran.
Mr Trump has just fired Rex Tillerson, a secretary of state who was ponderous but at least pondered, and replaced him with CIA chief Mike Pompeo, an ultra-hawk on Iran. There is talk of Mr Trump also replacing his national security adviser, general HR McMaster — who is not exactly soft on Iran. One mooted successor is John Bolton, a former ambassador to the UN who, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, said the US would ease itself out effortlessly within six months, and who has said the solution to Iranian nuclear ambitions is to bomb Iran.
The latest White House upheaval comes ahead of Mr Trump’s threat to tear up the nuclear accord Iran reached with six powers, including the US, in 2015. He said he would not re-endorse the deal in May unless it was re-written. That is not going to happen. The European signatories — France, Germany and the UK — are trying to steer around this by exploring separate measures to restrict Iran’s ballistic missile programme and penalise Tehran for expanding its paramilitary and political power across fragile Arab states including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. That attempt, too, looks forlorn.
The Iran nuclear deal may therefore be moribund. Mr Trump offers no alternative, other than war, to diplomacy that has successfully mothballed any nuclear bomb ambitions Tehran might have had. Meanwhile, MbS said in an interview ahead of his visit to the US this week that Saudi Arabia will seek a nuclear bomb if Iran gets one. But it is Israel that may pull the trigger on a new war.
It is probable that, in the coming days, the Israelis will strike hard at what they describe as an Iranian base in Syria south-west of Damascus. Satellite images of the purported base were broadcast on Fox News at the end of last month. When the BBC reported on what a western intelligence source called an Iranian-backed Shia militia base near Damascus in November, Israel’s air force obliterated it within weeks. Some western officials believe a follow-up is imminent.
Netanyahu told a pro-Israel lobby group in Washington this month that ‘darkness is descending on our region’ and ‘we will stop Iran’
Israel has attacked from the air in Syria more than 100 times since 2013, with the aim of destroying supposed depots or convoys of Iranian weapons destined for Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia paramilitary group that has sharpened into Iran’s spearhead for the region. But this mooted raid would be escalation, since Syria shot down an Israeli jet last month after an Iranian drone crossed into Israel’s air space.
Israel has loudly insisted it will not allow Iran nor Hizbollah to set up permanent bases in Syria. Nor will it tolerate Hizbollah’s growing missile arsenal in Lebanon. Mr Netanyahu told a pro-Israel lobby group in Washington this month that “darkness is descending on our region” and “we will stop Iran”.
Yet highlighted in that speech was Israel’s claim that Iran has built precision missile factories inside Lebanon for Hizbollah. It has apparently not provided evidence of these facilities, but one western official says how and when to strike them is “being discussed at the highest level” in Israel. Unlike any air strike inside Syria, such an attack, with Hizbollah’s ability to respond by firing missiles deep inside Israel, could trigger an uncontrollable chain reaction.
There seems to be no restraint on this from the US, Israel’s closest ally. Russia, the main outside power in Syria, counsels caution to its Iranian allies. But it has said little publicly about the Israeli air force’s continuing attacks inside Syrian air space that Moscow supposedly controls.
The rhetoric of Hizbollah has been unusually subdued of late, but the ayatollahs in Tehran do not do quietism. Mr Netanyahu’s florid rhetoric belies his record of aversion to risk. Yet he is fighting for his political life.
With US and Saudi hostility to Iran behind him, he may feel he could get away with dramatic air strikes — like those Israel carried out on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981 and a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. Alternatively, he might recall the fate of his predecessors who launched wars against Lebanon — Menachem Begin in 1982, Shimon Peres in 1996 and Ehud Olmert in 2006. All of them tumbled from office after wars far less destructive than this catastrophe would be.