An Israeli Eye on the Islamic State and Iran

By C. Hart

The U.S. expanded its war against the Islamic State (IS) on Tuesday, September 23, with an impressive coalition of five Arab states partnering in air strikes against the radical terror group’s presence in Syria.  This follows U.S. air strikes on at least 190 Islamic State targets in Iraq.

The Arab countries that participated (in what was reported to be mainly U.S. military air power against Islamic State forces) were the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan.  The White House hopes that Turkey will eventually join the U.S.-led coalition, along with Western nations.  France is the only Western nation currently participating in the coalition alongside American and Arab forces.

The world’s preoccupation with IS is taking the heat off Iran and its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons for military purposes.  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s overtures to Iran, hoping to include it in the U.S.-led coalition, failed because Iran wanted to link its participation to a softening of world demands on its nuclear program.  Iran also insisted that Israel get off Palestinian land as part of its terms.

Rather than isolate Iran in its continued determination to become an Islamic nuclear power, the U.S. emboldened Iran by asking for its help to contain IS.  Iranian leaders openly and publicly stated their terms, while Israel protested any linkage. 

Paul Hirschson, spokesman for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained Israel’s position to this writer: “Iran and Islamic State are important issues, but two separate issues.  That is the way we see it.  We think that Iran is a major long-term strategic threat and shouldn’t be confused with a very real threat which is posed by Islamic State.  But it is a separate issue.”

Following Israel’s lead, U.S. Secretary Kerry responded with a similar statement claiming that there would be no linkage between the P5+1 negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the invitation to Iran to participate in cracking down on IS.

When the airstrikes hit Syria, Iran stood on the sidelines, criticizing the U.S. for not asking Syrian President Bashar Assad for permission to strike Syrian territory.

Israeli officials assessed that Assad was trying to use the potential strike on Syrian territory to his advantage.  He had previously alluded to the fact that, in fighting IS, the U.S. was acting against the same terrorists that the Syrian regime had been battling.  Assad was looking for Western recognition that his regime was not part of the problem, but part of the solution.  This was his effort to come out of isolation and join forces that were fighting terrorists acting against his own regime.

But with almost 200,000 people dead in Syria, most of those casualties at the hands of the Assad regime, his outreached hand was refused by the U.S.  The Obama administration neutralized Assad’s diplomatic efforts at obtaining credibility and legitimacy.  Obama ignored Assad’s demand that the U.S. obtain his permission for air strikes against IS operating on sovereign Syrian territory.

By leaving Iran out of the coalition, and ignoring Iranian and Syrian terms for airstrikes, Obama gained the political upper hand in his effort to contain IS and cause it to retreat.

However, this could be short-lived if the U.S.-led coalition tries to bomb targets in Syria not related to Islamic State land-grabs.  It could be a slippery slope if the coalition makes a mistake and hits Syrian targets important to Assad’s regime.  It would drag his forces into an unwanted war with his neighbors and the West.

Reports indicate that IS appears bigger in force and power than its true capabilities.  The propaganda that it puts on the internet causes fear in the hearts of people.  It has, effectively, used social networking as a public relations tool to gain a reputation for being the most evil terrorist group the world has seen to date.  What IS has become is a global distraction that is greatly benefiting Iran.

Official sources in Israel assess that IS is strong in Syria and Iraq and has a foothold in Lebanon.  But currently, the terror group has little influence in neighboring countries.  While that could change, presently its presence in Jordan and Egypt is weak, and it has little influence in Hamas-controlled Gaza.

The U.S.-led coalition is suddenly changing Islamic State activities on the ground.  The terror group may spend less time now showing off its perverse victories (beheadings and crucifixions, for example) and more time looking over its shoulder.  It will not be able to act with the same freedom as before.  Instead, Israeli analysts conclude that IS will struggle to control the areas it has already gained while, at the same time, it fights coalition forces.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials are monitoring the P5+1 talks with Iran.  Jerusalem leaders are vocal in their insistence that the global focus on IS should not result in Western and Arab nations entrenched in Iraq and Syria when the greater threat to humanity, from Israel’s perspective, is Iran.  Current nuclear talks are expected to end in a deal with Iran by November 24, which Israel hopes will greatly curtail, if not eliminate, Iran’s nascent nuclear military program.

Israel sees this current battle with IS as a very different conflict from what could be a future battle with Iran.  Fighting IS is asymmetrical warfare.  The terror group has an estimated 31,500 fighters, and it could take three years for U.S.-led forces to defeat it.  But in the end, IS is containable from Israel’s point of view, and not a strategic threat.  IS cannot, in its present form, take over a sovereign state, and it cannot challenge an organized military force.

Iran, on the other hand, represents an existential threat to Israel if it becomes a nuclear power, and it could harm Western interests as well.  Fighting Iran would involve superior air power, advanced long-range missiles, and strategic naval operations.  It is a battle on a much higher scale.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told diplomats recently that Iran is the #1 exporter of terror in the world.  But for now, it seems that, in the eyes of the global public, the Islamic State is the most feared terrorist group in the world.  And Iran’s nuclear ambitions are taking a back seat.  All Israel can do at this point is take a wait-and-see attitude, trusting that IS’s power will wane and that the Iranian threat will come back into clearer global focus – hopefully before Iran is able to become a nuclear military state.

C. Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.

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