WASHINGTON – It took 24 hours, nearly to the minute, for White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to respond to the incident on Israel’s northern border, which sparked the most violent confrontation yet in its cold war with Iran.
“Israel is a staunch ally of the United States, and we support its right to defend itself from the Iranian- backed Syrian and militia forces in southern Syria,” Sanders said in a midnight message to the press. “We call on Iran and its allies to cease provocative actions and work toward regional peace.”
Whatever the Trump administration might be doing to diffuse this military escalation, it is doing so quietly – leveraging what little influence it has over players in Syria’s civil war to prevent the conflict from exploding region-wide.
In a serious military and diplomatic crisis between powerful nation-states, where the international community would in past years look to the US for leadership, all eyes are on Moscow for direction. It is a consequence of six years of Syria policy in which Washington chose to disengage from the war there and allow Russia and Iran to run free.
Now, senior Trump administration officials say they will not “accept” or “allow” Tehran to entrench itself in Syria so close to Israel’s border, already girded along one part by Lebanese Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy. To that end, the US was a part of critical talks with Russia last July to push Iran some distance away from the Golan border.
Since then, the US secretaries of defense and state have all but announced that American troops stationed in Syria will remain there indefinitely, if need be, to prevent the resurgence of Islamic State and to thwart Iran from completing a land bridge, or “Shi’ite crescent,” from Mashhad to the Mediterranean.
But concerns over that July agreement have born fruit. This weekend’s kinetic exchange – in which a drone of Iranian origin flew into Israeli airspace, prompting an IAF response that led to the loss of one of its jets – demonstrated the difficulty of enforcing such deals and the true extent of the administration’s diplomatic influence over the tripartite running Syria.
It shows how motivated Tehran remains to complete its forces’ buildup around Israel and how determined Israel remains to prevent it.
While Israelis may look to America for assistance in times of crisis such as these, it is unclear what diplomatic or military options the administration has at its disposal to help – in this case or in any future crises to come.
This administration has no channel of communication with Tehran, unlike its predecessor; it does not have relations with the Assad government. And if conflict were to erupt, Washington’s priority would be to avoid a confrontation between its own military forces and Russian forces before anything else.
Outlining US policy in Syria just weeks ago, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the administration seeks to “diminish” Iran’s presence in the state and deny it the ability to threaten its neighbors. He offered no details of a plan to accomplish this.
Trump has yet to comment or tweet on the border incident.