By Daniel Schwammenthal
11 December 2017
Brussels -- Europe’s borders are bloody. From Ukraine in the east to Libya and Syria in the south, war has brought mass migration, terrorism and political instability to a continent ill-equipped to do much about the underlying problem. Yet while the European Union’s soft power can’t stop conflicts, it could help prevent the outbreak of a new one—between Israel and Iran, aided by its proxy Hezbollah.
“The Middle East is under threat both of ISIS, the militant Islam of the Sunni variety, and militant Islam of the Shiite variety, led by Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday in Brussels before a breakfast meeting with the EU’s 28 foreign ministers. Given Europe’s preference for “engagement” over confrontation, some in the room no doubt found Mr. Netanyahu’s talk of tough diplomacy hard to digest.
But there’s no denying the facts. Iran has ethnically cleansed key areas in Syria of their original Sunni residents and repopulated them with Shiites from Lebanon and Iraq. Now Iran is setting up military bases to cement its dream of a land bridge to Lebanon as a path to regional hegemony. Given that the Iranian regime has made Holocaust denial and the destruction of the Jewish state core pillars of its ideology, no Israeli leader, whether right-wing or left-wing, could allow it to establish a permanent military presence next door.
And so on Dec. 2, Israeli airstrikes reportedly hit an Iranian base under construction in Syria some 30 miles from the border. Images provided by an Israeli satellite company, ImageSat International, show the destruction of seven buildings, with three more damaged.
Israel is determined to prevent Iran from opening a second front. The first front is the one along the Lebanese border. It is controlled by Hezbollah, which is wholly owned and funded by Iran. During the six-year-old Syrian war, Israel had limited its intervention to providing medical help and stopping the delivery of strategic weapons to Hezbollah.
Despite those efforts, Hezbollah has become a considerable strategic threat. If Hezbollah starts another war—as some Israeli military officials think it inevitably will—it will make the 2006 confrontation look like a skirmish. The group’s arsenal of missiles has grown, and their reach, accuracy and payload have increased. In 2006, Hezbollah had about 15,000 rockets that could hit northern Israel, and it fired some 4,300 over a month. Today Hezbollah has around 120,000 missiles capable of hitting anywhere in Israel, and it could fire probably 1,000 a day.
How would this affect the EU directly? Lebanon already hosts some 1.5 million Syrian refugees. A major war could turn many Lebanese themselves into refugees. The ensuing migration would destabilize Europe further.
Hezbollah knows it cannot destroy Israel. But if it can inflict more damage than in 2006, it will claim victory. In its propaganda efforts, it will have help: Journalists, the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations doubtless will ignore Israeli efforts to avoid civilian deaths—which surpass even NATO standards—and avert their gaze from the readily available evidence that Hezbollah is hiding its weapons among civilians. As in previous confrontations that Hezbollah and Hamas instigated, simplistic media coverage will mischaracterize every Lebanese civilian casualty as evidence of Israeli war crimes and brutality.
That’s where EU diplomacy comes in. If Hezbollah and its Iranian overlords knew they’d be deprived of this propaganda victory, they might be less eager to attack. That’s why the EU’s foreign ministers should condemn Hezbollah now for rearming in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 and for hiding weapons among civilians. The EU should put Hezbollah on its terror list until it disarms and declare that in any future war, it will hold Hezbollah and Tehran responsible for civilian casualties on both sides of the border. It should also inform the Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is an integral part, that no EU reconstruction aid will flow after another Hezbollah-initiated war.
Moreover, EU diplomacy needs to take a stronger tone vis-à-vis Tehran. Just last week, the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards, Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, warned Europe that if it “threatens” Tehran—i.e., challenges its ballistic-missile tests—Iran will increase the range of missiles beyond 1,200 miles. Imagine how European stock markets, oil prices and foreign investments would react if that same threat were uttered in 10 years, when Iran, according to Barack Obama, will be a threshold nuclear state. The time to confront Iran is now, not when it is too late, as it is in North Korea.
Rather than line up for friendly photo-ops with Iran’s ever-smiling foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, the EU’s leaders need to call out the real foreign-policy chiefs, including Gen. Salami and his boss, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. The EU could start by following the U.S. lead and imposing sanctions against Mahan Air, an airline backed by the Revolutionary Guards, which flies troops and weapons to Syria. Mahan’s ethnic cleansing airdrops are cross-subsidized by its commercial activities, including passenger flights to six European destinations. Ultimately, the entire Revolutionary Guards ought to face sanctions for war crimes in Syria and terror activities world-wide. No EU reconstruction aid to Syria should flow as long as foreign troops remain.
Engagement is a legitimate tool. The EU has tried it now for many years with Iran, but it has failed to moderate the regime. Continuing this policy against any reasonable hope of success crosses the fine line between engagement and appeasement.
Europe’s power is mostly soft. But it can still be “weaponized” to help contain Iran and pre-empt another major war in its neighborhood.
Mr. Schwammenthal is director of the AJC Transatlantic Institute.