Israel’s recent intensified airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria come within the context of a new strategy that is based on “driving Iran for good” out of Syria, as was announced by Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett. This step is considered a new shift in the strategies to fight Iran’s influence in the region that Israel expects would have implications for the geopolitical scene that has taken shape since 2011. This takes place against changes experienced by both the regional and international environments, such as the COVID-19 epidemic and a change of the priorities of players in the Syrian crisis. Therefore, to what extent can Israel achieve its new targets in Syria, and will its strategy be successful in driving Iran out of Syria?

Multiple Israeli strategies and modest results

Israel’s handling of the Syrian crisis has been characterized by caution and hesitation and the adoption of a “monitoring policy” based on taking advantage of the Syrian war as an opportunity to crush opponents and achieve net gains without paying any prices. This is done through an Israeli decision that rejects getting involved in the war with or against any of its sides. As a result, Israel initially turned a blind eye to Iran’s expansion in the Syrian geography.

However, the subsequent developments have revealed to Israel the geopolitical dimensions of the war and Iranian influence in Syria, which would have future implications for Israeli security in case scenarios other than those estimated by its security services take place, that is other than the scenario of the downfall of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad which had preoccupied the minds of Israeli decision makers as the most likely scenario and the one imposed by the facts produced by combat fields in Syria and the dramatic collapses of the Syrian regime’s army.

Initial Israeli responses were manifested through a strategy that aims to ease the severity of changes, which were then at the conjecture phase, with the emergence of indications that Iran is achieving significant military results and breakthroughs, outside those estimated by Israel, such as transporting advanced weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah and the deployment of militias loyal to Iran close to the Golan. Israel has called this strategy the “war between wars”.

At this stage, Israel adopted the strategy of direct and preemptive strikes, whether against convoys carrying weapons from Syria to Lebanon or the logistical structure built by Iran to accomplish this mission, in the form of its bases dispersed in the Syrian desert (Shayrat and T-4 airports) and the camps it uses for this purpose in western Damascus Countryside, that is in Al-Kiswah, the periphery of Damascus and Qalamun, and different parts of Syria.

Israel’s strategy against Iran has been affected by the opportunism of the political thinking of Israeli security and military elites. This has resulted in the decline of the practical effects of its strategy against Iran. Israel had wanted that Iran get more involved in the Syrian war hoping that Iran and its arms would be exhausted. At the same time, Israel wanted to maintain its strategic status as the biggest deterrent force in the region. This has led to lowering the ceiling of the confrontation strategy with Iran and limiting it within narrow frameworks, as follows:

1. Reducing Iran’s capability to dispatch weapons to Hezbollah. The Israeli Defence Minister has admitted this by saying: “Israel has so far been targeting only one of every five Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah”.

2. Maintaining Israel’s freedom of action and air supremacy in the region. The Jewish state has adopted certain tactics to implement that target, through striking the Syrian air defence system and reaching understandings with Russia which assumed control of Syrian airspace after its intervention late 2015.[1] This has resulted in the implementation of the Israeli strategy against Iran being subjected to external circumstances and factors.

Disclosure of the strategy of “pushing Iran out”

Towards the end of April 2020, Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett announced the start of the stage of “pushing Iran out of Syria”. He confirmed that his country has shifted from the policy of blocking Iran to pushing it out for good. He called on Israelis to wait for the results of this strategy which is based on carrying out “much bigger operations and much more frequently than in the past”. In February 2020, Bennett announced that Israel aims to push Iran out of Syria within the upcoming 12 months. He explained that his country’s strategy will shift from a “defensive strategy to an offensive strategy” as this is the only action that would ensure pushing Iran out of Syria. Bennett threatened transforming Syria into “Iran’s Vietnam”. He indicated that the battles that will break out under this strategy are not “war in the traditional sense but rather specific strikes and continuous pursuit”, claiming that “Israel has complete intelligence and aerial superiority there”.

Therefore, the new Israeli strategy is based on raising the ceiling of “red lines” and giving up the long-standing state of caution in an attempt to benefit from the new facts, namely:

  • COVID-19 epidemic: Israeli circles estimate that Iran is preoccupied with dealing with the consequences of the epidemic spread which coincided with a major economic crisis as a result of the decline in oil prices and the state of embarrassment prevailing in Iran as a result of the regime’s awkward management of the crisis. For Israel, this represents an opportunity to carry out a strike or multiple strikes that would force Iran to give up its influence in Syria.
  • Investment in the murder of the commander of the Iranian Quds Force Qasem Soleimani: this is considered by Israeli security services a “foundational event” that could be critical in the question of Iran’s intervention outside its borders with a focus on Syria. They attribute this to Soleimani’s importance in shaping Iran’s regional policy and establishing its military presence abroad while warning that the window provided by Soleimani’s absence may not be big. This would require intensifying the strikes and accelerating their results in light of Hezbollah’s preoccupation with the Lebanese domestic developments as a result of the political and economic crisis that Lebanon is experiencing at this stage.

The Israeli targets from this campaign are not limited to driving Iran out. They have underlying long-term political targets. These are explained by Israeli military intelligence director Major General Tamir Heiman who said that it provides “an opportunity to influence the shaping of Syria’s role in the future system and to break the extreme Shiite axis against Israel”.[2]

Will Israel succeed in its new strategy?

The new Israeli strategy does not include different mechanisms from what had been tried in the past. It remains within the framework of previous bets, that is benefitting from mostly circumstantial changes and the possibility that Iran will be affected by the losses to be exacerbated by intensified fire, according to the new operational plan.

Compared to Israel’s experience of more than six years of countering Iran on Syrian territories, its recent strategy is likely to fail for the following considerations:

  • It has been proved that air attacks alone are not enough to drive Iranian forces out. To achieve this target fully, there is no escape from a land operation in which Israel apparently does not want to get involved.
  • Over the last few years, Iran has accumulated an experience in dealing with Israeli attacks so that it has become capable of easing their outcomes and limiting its losses to a tolerable extent.
  • Iran allocates significant resources to maintain its influence in Syria. Military expenses and losses are calculated within a wider budget that is incorporated into spending on the Iranian geopolitical project in the region. In addition, Iran is not affected by human losses since those killed are mostly non-Iranians.
  • More importantly, Israeli strategies towards Iran, old and new alike, are generally characterized by being hesitant and cautious. Developers of those strategies are keen not to force Iran to respond strongly to Israel. There has long been an Israeli trend within the army and security services that warns against the potential impact on the Israeli domestic front as a result of the missiles owned by Hezbollah in Lebanon. This has driven Israel to adhere to agreed rules of combat. Even under the new strategy, Israel observes those rules. US newspaper New York Times has revealed that Israel sent a warning to Hezbollah operatives who were in a car heading for Damascus at the Masnaa crossing between Lebanon and Syria before striking it.

Conclusion

Within its framework of countering Iranian influence in Syria, Israel has made some success, particularly in terms of slowing down the deployment of Iranian militiamen in southern Syria. But it failed in many respects in light of Iran’s attempts to diversify its strategies and tactics and its use of alternatives that Israel finds hard to counter such as recruiting large numbers of Syrian fighters in southern Syria to support its force in the face of Israel, and the development of multiple routes for logistical support, whether between Iraq and Syria, or between Syria and Lebanon. This is evidenced by the fact that Hezbollah’s missile arsenal has doubled and became a determinant for any Israeli decision to raise the level of threat against Iran.

Israeli strategies to counter Iran will remain of little effect as long as they depend on air force alone and do not include direct involvement in the Syrian war. This possibility is no longer plausible in light of the changes in both the Syrian crisis setting and the regional and international setting. It remains for Israel to bet on developments in Iran itself, or even in Iraq and Syria, and wait for the implications of the economic and political crises in those countries.

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[1] Eyal Tsir Cohen and Kevin Huggard, “What can we learn from the escalating Israeli raids in Syria?”, The Brookings Institution, 6 December 2019. Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/12/06/what-can-we-learn-from-the-escalating-israeli-raids-in-syria/ 

[2] “Military Intelligence Directorate recommends stepping up attacks on the Iranians in Syria”, the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, 13 February 2020. Available at: https://www.inss.org.il/publication/the-israeli-intelligence-recommendation

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