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But as the rebels have lost ground and no clear threats to Mr. Assad’s rule remain, Iran and its allies have stayed, shifting their focus to creating an infrastructure to threaten Israel, analysts say. Iran continues to train and equip fighters while strengthening ties with allies in Iraq and Lebanon, in hopes of building a united front in the event of a new war.
“The ultimate goal is, in the case of another war, to make Syria a new front between Israel, Hezbollah and Iran,” said Amir Toumaj, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who studies Iran. “They are making that not just a goal, but a reality.”
Iranian leaders speak openly of their work to build this axis of resistance against Israeli and American influence. A key to Iran’s strategy, analysts and officials say, is to rely not on conventional military hardware or control of territory, which Israel can easily bomb, but on building ties with local forces who share its goals and benefit from its financing and expertise.
That approach has enabled Iran to amplify its power in the Arab world while decreasing the threat to its own forces and homeland. It has also created a problem for countries including the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, who fear Iran’s growing influence but have struggled to come up with ways to stop it.
Some people in Israel have started referring to a potential “First Northern War,” meaning that Israel will have to fight across both the Lebanese and Syrian frontiers. And many Israelis say the danger is not just from the new Iranian-backed militias, but also from the Iranian efforts to give advanced, high-precision weapons capable of hitting sensitive infrastructure to Hezbollah, Iran’s most powerful and experienced external force.
Israeli officials have said that Iran and its allies are seeking to establish a land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean, via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, to ease the transportation of such weapons and to build underground factories to manufacture them in Lebanon and Syria. Israel has been bombing convoys in Syria that are believed to be carrying advanced arms to Hezbollah, but the group’s covert nature makes it hard to determine which arms have slipped through and whether its arms factories are functioning.
Such arms, coupled with heavy barrages from the more than 100,000 rockets and missiles without high-precision targeting capability that Israel says Hezbollah already has, could overwhelm Israel’s defenses.
“Israel will face not only quantity, but the threat to vulnerable strategic sites,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser and now a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies. Referring to the combination of more precise weapons and a new front, he added: “Each one is problematic; together, they are devastating.”
Iran’s moves in the region have alarmed the United States. “What’s particularly concerning is that this network of proxies is becoming more and more capable as Iran seeds more and more” of its “destructive weapons into these networks,” Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, said at a security conference in Munich on Saturday. “So the time is now, we think, to act against Iran,” General McMaster added.
In expanding its influence in Syria in recent years, Iran has followed a standard template. In Lebanon in the 1980s, it helped create Hezbollah, which has since evolved into the country’s predominant military force and a regional power in its own right, joining the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In Iraq, Iran has sponsored a range of militias while developing deep ties to the Iraqi economy and political system.
The war in Syria gave Iran a new opportunity to advance that project by linking its allies across the Levant together.
Fighters from Hezbollah routed Syrian rebels near the Lebanese border and Iran sent advisers to help Mr. Assad’s beleaguered forces during the early years of the war.
But by 2013, Mr. Assad’s forces were on the verge of collapse, and Iran intervened more forcefully, undertaking an extensive regional operation to train, arm and transport thousands of Shiite militiamen from abroad to Syria to fight the rebels and the jihadists of the Islamic State.
Estimates of the number of Iranian military personnel in Syria today range from the high hundreds to the low thousands. While some directly participate in combat, most are trainers, commanders or experts who advise the Syrian military and oversee militias. It is these militias, which could have as many as 20,000 fighters, that give Iran its true muscle.
Those fighters include about 6,000 from Hezbollah. Most of the rest of the militia members — who come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and elsewhere — have been enticed to fight in Syria with money and appeals to their Shiite faith. Indeed, most see the war in Syria in religious terms, as a jihad against enemies of their religion.
Ali Alfoneh, a researcher at the Atlantic Council who tracks reports of foreign militia fighters killed in Syria, said the number of deaths reported had decreased substantially as those fighting for Mr. Assad have gotten the upper hand in the war. But instead of leaving the country, he said, the militias appeared to be shifting their sights toward Israel.
“Iran has realized that it is actually possible to maintain a front against Israel where there is no war but also no peace,” Mr. Alfoneh said.
In his research, Mr. Alfoneh said he had identified three main Iranian bases that oversee operations in large parts of Syria — one near Aleppo in the north and two south of the capital, Damascus — as well as seven smaller tactical bases near active front lines where Iran and its proxies have a presence.
The idea of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria worries Israel, which fears that it could face a threat there similar to that posed by Hezbollah in Lebanon. Analysts close to Iran and its proxies say that is exactly the idea.
“It’s like a replication of the Hezbollah model,” said Ali Rizk, a Lebanese analyst who writes for Al Monitor, a news website focused on the Middle East. Iran is already training fighters in southern Syria, he said, so that if Hezbollah draws down its presence there, as its leaders have vowed to, it will leave behind a Syrian prototype.
In recent months, at least two Iraqi militia leaders have visited the Lebanon-Israel border with Hezbollah, and militia members say the visits have included developing plans for how they might collaborate in a future conflict.
Life has returned to normal in the Israel-controlled Golan Heights since the day of battle on Feb. 10, and the ski resort on Mount Hermon has been operating as usual. There was no immediate sense among Israelis of being on a war footing.
But Israelis and many Lebanese have long worried that another war across their border is inevitable. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ratcheted up the rhetoric on Sunday at the security conference in Munich, warning Iran’s leaders not to test Israel’s resolve and pledging that if pushed, Israel would act “not only against Iranian proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”
Both sides say they do not want war, and the fear of extensive destruction and civilian deaths has deterred new hostilities since the last war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. But the more entrenched Iran’s allies become, the greater the pressure Israeli leaders could face to launch a strike — and the greater the chances that a miscalculation or mistake by either side could provoke new hostilities.
Some analysts have expressed hopes that Russia, which also intervened in Syria on Mr. Assad’s behalf, could serve as a check on Iran’s ambitions. Russia has cooperated with Iran during the war but also seeks to maintain good relations with Israel.
Notably, Russia has not publicly complained when Israel has bombed convoys believed to be bound for Hezbollah. Others question to what degree the Syrian population will buy into Iran’s ideological project, noting that only a tiny portion of Syrians share Iran’s Shiite faith.
Much remains unclear about Iran’s intentions. Days after Israel destroyed the drone, Israeli military officials said they were still not sure whether it had been armed, had been sent on a surveillance mission or was merely a test of Israel’s defenses.
“It is very important for us to understand its mission,” Brig. Gen. Tomer Bar, the chief of staff of the Israeli Air Force, told reporters. “We have to understand it and we will investigate it till the end.”Continue reading the main story
There were years in which the Munich Security Conference transmitted signs of understanding and hope. None of that was evident during this, the 54th such security conference. This year's motto "To the Brink – and Back?" seemed an apt description of the situation that the world finds itself in today.
After three days of discussions, one thing seems crystal clear: All indications point to further conflict, and the motto's question mark, sadly, must remain. Once again, the conference proved itself to be a place where the world's many problems are put on the table, called by name and analyzed.
Yet, it seems as if diplomacy has reached the end of the road. Although conference leader Wolfgang Ischinger deserves a great deal of praise for bringing various representatives from many different camps together at one venue, the conference hall itself appeared to have been reduced to a stage for contradictory, isolated and seemingly irreconcilable narratives. Those looking for earnest signs of understanding and constructive proposals for solutions to thorny areas of conflict found none here.
That was most apparent on the final day of the conference. Reciprocal recriminations set the tone of statements delivered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir. Moreover, Zarif and Al-Jubeir's statements were starkly reminiscent of last year's statements, and thus another sign of just how intractable the situation has become.
Even conference leader Ischinger – as a diplomat, a man generally obliged to at least cautious optimism – could do no more than to state that participants heard far too little about concrete steps toward mitigating the world's many security problems.
Harsh words rather than clever interaction
Another example was the fact that Turkey's release of the imprisoned Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel dominated sideline discussions throughout the course of the first day of the conference. The following day illustrated just how uncompromising the positions of Turkish and German politicians can be.
As chance would have it, German Green Party politician Cem Özdemir happened to be staying in the same hotel as Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. Since Yildirim's bodyguards regard Özdemir as a terrorist, the German was put under police protection during his stay. The rough behavior of Turkish bodyguards is known to all, at least since the fiasco that ensued during President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's most recent visit to the USA.
The situation was not made better when Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later accused Özdemir of being a liar. It seems no wonder then, that Turkish politicians such as Yildirim and Cavusoglu would be so unbending in their defense of Turkish military offensives against Syrian Kurds.
The demise of diplomacy as the art of skillfully crafted language was also put on full display by Polish President Mateusz Morawiecki. When asked by reporters about Poland's new "Holocaust law," Morawiecki conceded that there had indeed been Polish perpetrators who denounced Jews and committed crimes against them during the Second World War, only to add: "Just as there were Jewish perpetrators, Russian perpetrators and Ukrainian perpetrators and not just German perpetrators."
Difficult relations among Western countries were also dominated by unforgiving reciprocal blame rather than diplomacy. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, for instance, portrayed Russia as the source of all of Europe's ills. He demanded more pressure on Moscow, came out against any loosening of sanctions and expressed his desire that Ukraine be quickly admitted to the EU and NATO.
In response, the visibly annoyed Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Europe of returning to the Nazi era, dismissed American cries of election interference as "blabber" and explained that Washington's recent announcement of its intent to strengthen its nuclear arsenal would leave Russia with no other option than to do the same.
The US delegation – with the exception of former Secretary of State John Kerry – thought itself safely situated on the moral high ground. Never lacking self-confidence, the Americans did not even bother to show understanding for dissenting opinions while railing against Russia and Iran. They were content to put their confidence in applying more pressure, and in US military strength.
Europeans repeatedly complained about the fact that diplomacy seems to mean little in Washington these days, a fact clearly evidenced by the Trump administration's drastic budget cuts to the State Department. The main complaint was that if talks – should they even take place – are undertaken solely from the standpoint of military superiority, then they are not talks at all, but rather dictates.
One bright spot is that beyond the 30 or so panel discussions that took place during the conference, more than 1,000 bilateral discussions took place in rooms at the Bayerischer Hof hotel. Wolfgang Ischinger compared the official conference itself to the "tip of an iceberg." One can only hope that the tip is not representative of what is submerged.
Spanish prosecutors have demanded prison terms for 18 Russian and Spanish nationals suspected of mafia ties after a decade-long criminal investigation.
Previous investigations into Russian mafia activities in Spain have featured high-ranking Russian officials, including some of President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies. One of the Russian mafia’s leaders in Spain is the infamous Tambov gangster Gennady Petrov, who was twice arrested in the country but never returned after being granted permission to leave for Russia in 2012.
State Duma deputy Vladislav Reznik, among a dozen Russians targeted in a 2016 arrest warrant in Spain, claimed innocence at Monday’s court hearing.
“I came to the session because I’m not guilty of anything and I trust the Spanish justice system,” the state-run RIA Novosti news agency cited Reznik as saying in Madrid.
Prosecutors seek prison sentences for the 18 Russian and Spanish suspects ranging from 1.7 years to 5.6 years, and fines from 26,000 euros to 100 million euros on criminal charges including money laundering and fraud, RIA Novosti reported.
Prosecutors also asked to sentence Petrov, the Tambov mafia chief, to 8.5 years in a separate case. Spain does not try defendants in absentia.