The Jerusalem Post

Iran in Syria and Israeli strategy choices

Recent quiet on northern front may only indicate a momentary pause or Tehran is distracted for now


Israel may face a crossroads in its Syria policy in the coming 12 months as countries in the region seek to bring Syria back into the fold of Arab states and prefer that the instabilit­y and chaos that has underpinne­d the Syrian civil war for a decade end with the Syrian regime cemented in power.

This is not a simple process, because the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces still have power east of the Euphrates, while Turkey controls and occupies a swath of northern Syria. There are still refugees and the Syrian regime is incredibly weak and poor, meaning that Iran and Russia have a lot of influence.

It is Iran’s influence that concerns Israel. Tehran has worked with the Syrian regime for decades, but in recent years Iran sought to establish bases and sent members of the Islamic Revolution­ary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Syria and began to support militias and the deployment of Hezbollah to areas close to Israel across from the Golan.

These myriad tentacles of Iranian influence have met with pushback from Israel. Back in August 2017 former Air Force head Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said that Israel had struck convoys destined for Hezbollah in Syria nearly 100 times in five years. Eshel is now Director General of the Defense Ministry.

In January 2019 former Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told The New York Times that Israel had struck thousands of Iranian targets in Syria. A simple calculatio­n will tell you that an increase from nearly 100 attacks in five years to hitting thousands of targets by the end of 2019 represents a major increase in activity.

The increase coincided with Iran’s increased entrenchme­nt in Syria in 2018 and 2019. Iran establishe­d a drone base at T-4 base in Syria and used a drone to fly into Israeli airspace in February 2018. It used another drone during the conflict this May again to enter Israeli airspace near Beit She’an.

Iran also tried to bring its advanced air defense 3rd Khordad system to T-4 base in Syria in April 2018. In the fall of 2019 it sent a “killer drone” team of Hezbollah operatives close to the Golan and Israel struck the drone team in August of that year. It should be noted that in September Iran used drones to attack Saudi Arabia.

Satellite images that appeared increasing­ly in the media in 2018, including of an airstrike near Albukamal and sites near Damascus, pointed to how far the Iranian program had spread. Iran built a base called Imam Ali on the Syrian border with Iraq, for instance. Even as far back as November 2017 BBC revealed, based on western intelligen­ce that Iran was building a “base situated at a site used by the Syrian army near El-Kiswah, 14 km. south of Damascus, and 50 km. from the Israeli border.”

Now things have changed, it appears. When Naftali Bennett was defense minister he indicated Iran was drawing down forces in Syria in May 2020. Recent reports say Iran may be reducing forces again, but neverthele­ss continue to have major influence over parts of Syria. There have also been two rounds of US airstrikes on proIran

groups in Syria and these groups are now threatenin­g US forces at Omar Field and Conoco in eastern Syria.

Meanwhile, areas around Deraa in Syria, which the Syrian regime retook in 2018 and where the regime and Russia were supposed to be reconcilin­g with former rebels, have continued to suffer instabilit­y and former rebels have apparently attacked regime elements.

Reports also say that Israel

is gearing up to get more advanced technology from the US in the case of a rising Iran nuclear threat. This week, France’s envoy to Israel said that Iran should not possess a nuclear weapon.

In addition, Lebanon is in chaos over economic problems and the rise of Hezbollah, and Iraq is also suffering from proIran militias that are becoming more powerful than the government.

This wider context means that while countries like Egypt are pushing for normalizat­ion with Syria and are talking with Jordan and Iraq and the Gulf about how Syria might be welcomed back to the Arab world, and thus pried away from Turkey or Iran, there are questions about what this means for Israel.

First of all there are questions about Israel’s freedom to operate in Syria against threats, a

campaign called the “war between the wars” or “campaign between the wars.”

There are questions about Iranian entrenchme­nt and the “road to the sea” that Iran sought to establish from Albukamal to T-4, Damascus and then Beirut. There are major questions about what the US will do next in Syria and also what Turkey and Russia have in mind.

With so many balls in the air, Israel’s future strategy likely will be closely examined. The strategy until now has sought to reduce Iranian entrenchme­nt and threats. The recent relative quiet on the Syria-Israel front could indicate that this is happening, but it could also indicate a momentary pause or an Iran that is distracted for now.

Israel will need to coordinate with the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and the US in terms of what may come next on this front.

 ?? (SANA/Reuters) ?? SYRIA’S PRESIDENT Bashar Assad meets with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Damascus in May.
(SANA/Reuters) SYRIA’S PRESIDENT Bashar Assad meets with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Damascus in May.

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