The Israeli Perspective on the Challenges and Opportunities Presented by the Syrian Situation

EPC | 26 Nov 2019

Israel’s recent raids on — primarily Iranian — sites near Damascus and in other parts of Syria appear to be designed to show Iran that any attempt to launch missiles against Israel will be met with a much greater response that Iran may have expected. In return, Iran has changed the rules of its engagement with Israel by adopting the principle of “bombs for bombs”, and Syrian and Iraqi territories have become Iran’s preferred arena for testing out that principle in practice. Some time ago, Israel started to push back against Iranian positions in Syria and Iraq, which it now seems far more determined to do. This paper will examine Israel’s policies and strategies for dealing with Iranian positions in Syria, discuss how Tel Aviv is interacting with actors on the Syrian political scene, and identify the greatest challenges and opportunities facing Israel.

I. Israel’s aims and gains in Syria

          When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel chose not to intervene on either side, at least until the balance of power became clearer. Nonetheless, the Cabinet (the lower ministerial council for security and political affairs within the Government) ordered the Israeli military to monitor the situation closely, “in order to prevent the conflict from reaching the Golan border and threatening Israel’s security”. Little by little, Israel became a major player in the civil war. Although the balance of military power between Israel and Syria after the civil war has greatly favored Israel, developments in the country have brought Israel up against new challenges posed by the Iranian axis. The question has therefore become, what are Israel’s basic aims in Syria? And what has it achieved?

  1. What does Israel want in Syria?
  • To prevent Iranian victories in the country and to undermine Iran’s growing influence in Syria and in neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. Tel Aviv summarizes this goal as “preventing and combating Iranian positions”.
  • To gain international recognition as the authority in the Golan and to establish a “security belt” along its eastern edge.
  • To reduce Turkey’s gains by keeping the Kurds in the game.
  • To limit Russia’s gains, particularly following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria, leaving the field open to influence from Moscow, which was not popular in Israel.
  1. What has Israel achieved in Syria?

          It cannot be said that Israel has achieved everything it set out to do in Syria. On a strategic level, however, it has made the following gains:

  1. The Syrian army has not engaged in conflict with Israel for a long time. While it is true that the army has not represented much of a threat to Israel over the past four decades, Israel has prepared for the possibility of a change of regime in Damascus, with new leaders that might decide to renew the attack. Before it collapsed, the Syrian army was a powerful military force; now, however, it will take many years and considerable energy for it to recover.
  2. Liberating the Golan Heights has been pushed to the bottom of the agenda for Syria’s political leaders, within both the Government and the opposition. The USA has also officially recognized Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Golan.
  3. Syria remains outside Arab consensus.

II. Why does Israel believe that it is engaged in a military conflict with Iran in Syria?

          It was only in April 2018 that Amos Yadlin, former head of the Military Intelligence Division of the Israeli army and current director of the Institute for National Security Studies, announced that Israel had come to the conclusion that it was “in a direct military conflict with Iran, primarily in Syria, but also in Lebanon and Iraq”. This conclusion is based on the following data:

  1. Launch pad: Israel realized that Iran had managed to establish a strong strategic position for itself in Syria, which it did not appear intent on abandoning any time soon. Some seventeen thousand Shia militants have entered Syria from Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, in addition to ten thousand members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah party and 1,500 members of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. Iran has also brought along many militants’ family members, whom it has housed in properties abandoned by Syrians during the war. It has established military bases in various sensitive locations, near to airports and in an area close to those held by the Russian army. Israel has viewed these developments as an attempt to change the demographic and sectarian composition of Syria with the aim of turning the country into a launching pad for attacks against Israel, a view which was published on the website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 1 April 2019.
  2. Demographic, political, and ideological change: In October 2018, the rightwing Israeli website Mida published a study by Mordechai Nisan on Iran’s demographic and security strategy, in which he stated that: “By 2018, the total Syrian population had dropped from 22 million to 18 million. New Syrians have moved to areas traditionally occupied by Sunnis, in particular in the main cities; these Syrians are Shias recruited by the Iranian regime as aides in the Syrian war. Assad’s war against armed Sunni insurgents of all factions, whether local Sunnis, such as the Free Syrian Army, or members of ISIS, Al-Qaida, or other such organizations, has, on the ground, translated into a renewed campaign to occupy Sunni Arab Syria. The Alawite minority are working with their big brother Iran and with Hezbollah to create widespread demographic and religious change, which, naturally, also has political and ideological implications. The Arab national ideology that characterized contemporary Syria has virtually been replaced as a result of Shiite aspirations of control.”
  3. Preventing the return of millions of refugees: In connection with the previous point, Mida also stated that: “The main effect of the continuation of the Syrian war in the form of Sunni religious–ethnic cleansing, as well as the reorganization of the demographic map in Syria, has been to discourage the return of millions of refugees. There are some 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Europe; they will not be returning home. It is reasonable to assume that their homes are no longer even standing, or that they will be torn down as part of the Government’s development projects. According to estimates, a third of all accommodation in the country has been destroyed since 2011. New construction projects across Syria are expected to be allocated to foreign Shias who have arrived or will arrive in the country. For many years, Syria faced the paradox of being a country where an Alawite minority ruled over a Sunni majority. A (partial) solution has been found in the shape of efforts to reduce the Sunni majority to sustainable proportions. Ostensibly, a large-scale demographic change will give legitimacy to the dominant sect, something that they have sought since the Assad family seized power in 1970. According to Iranian dictates, however, it is the Alawites themselves that are supposed to undergo a change of religious identity through an apparently forced program of transformation, as though they were in fact a branch of historical Shia Islam (which they are not). It remains unclear whether the Alawite community will agree to surrender to this religious change. Alawi are different from Twelver Shias, and this religious tension may become the cause of future military confrontation between the current allies.”

In summary, Tel Aviv sees Iran as having established a firm hold in three areas around Israel: Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip. They are continuing to make use of a long corridor that allows them to remain strong in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and they seek to establish a land corridor that links their interests in the three countries and connects them to a fixed location on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

  1. The Iranians are seeking to build an oil pipeline from Kirkuk across the Syrian Desert to the Mediterranean Sea.
  2. Israel’s current leadership refuses to relinquish the Golan, and Syria’s current leadership refuses to relinquish its claim to the Golan. The relationship between the two sides is therefore antagonistic, and conflicts flare up and settle down along the border according to developments. This situation may change if conditions change substantially and an opportunity arises for a political settlement between the two countries.

III. Israeli operations to counter Iran in Syria

          When the Syrian war started in 2011, Israel became aware that Lebanon’s Hezbollah party was establishing cells in preparation for turning the Golan into springboard for conflict with Israel. Israel has launched a number of attacks against those cells and has assassinated several of their leaders, including Iranian and Lebanese officers: Israel assassinated Hezbollah’s military chief, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus in 2012, followed by Jihad Mughniyeh and Samir Kuntar in 2015. In the light of Iran’s growing, multidimensional influence in Syria, Israel has started to examine all aspects of Iran’s position, including military, security, and political elements. It is attempting to address the situation in a number of ways, including the following:

  1. Israel decided to confront Iran’s position through force. It started to bomb not only weapons convoys, but also Iranian bases throughout Syrian territory. While past practice was to carry out such attacks in secret, without claiming responsibility, Israel has since reversed this approach; since the second half of 2018, it has conducted a number of intense raids that resulted in the deaths of numerous members of the Syrian army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, and Shia militias.
  2. An understanding with Russia to remove Iranians from the Israeli border: Israel entered into indirect negotiations with Iran, through the Russian army, to end the Iranian presence at the Israeli border. An agreement was reached that Iran would reduce its presence at the border and fall back to a depth of 80 km from the section of the border in the Golan.
  3. Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs and former member of the Israeli Cabinet Yuval Steinitz has previously made direct threats to kill Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he allows Iran to launch operations against Israel from Syrian territory.
  4. The Israeli intelligence services have made threats against the Iranian official responsible for Syria, named publically as General Javad Ghaffari, who is known as “the Aleppo Butcher” for the brutal combat operations that he led in the city.
  5. Israel has led an international campaign against the Iranian nuclear program and Iran’s development of ballistic missiles.
  6. With US support, Israel has attempted to build relations with Arab States and form alliances with some of them to combat Iran. Israel’s refusal to change its position on Palestine has prevented it from making progress in those relations, however.
  7. Israel has assassinated a series of Iranian nuclear scientists. Mossad also carried out a bold operation in Tehran to seize archives from a secret warehouse containing information about Iran’s military nuclear program.
  8. Several years ago, as part of a focused operation with limited aims, the Israeli army established ties with the Syrian Druze, who are supporters of the Assad regime. Through them, Tel Aviv delivered messages to Damascus, up until the arrival of the Russians in September 2015. Israel has also established ties with the opposition forces. Israel has opened a special border point through which it receives Syrian civilians who had been injured in the war, and the Israeli army has set up a field hospital at the border. As reported in the Yedioth Ahronoth on 30 June 2018, thus far some six thousand injured Syrians have received treatment at the hospital, 4,500 of whom were transferred to Israeli hospitals to receive further treatment. A further 3,500 injured Syrians have been transferred directly to Israeli hospitals for treatment. This operation is part of Israel’s strategy to establish relations with all organizations, including ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra.

IV: Israeli response to Iranian activities in Iraq

          Following Donald Trump’s election as US President and his adoption of a strict policy on Iran, Tehran began to abandon some areas of its policy in Syria, diverting its activities to Iraq, where it started to construct a ballistic missile system to target Israel. Israel carried out direct attacks on the weapons stores belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces, a Shia militia in Iraq, where the Iranian missiles were being stored and where the infrastructure for manufacturing advanced weapons had been installed. Attacks were carried out on the weapons depot near Balad Air Base in Saladin Governorate (northern Baghdad) on 20 August 2019, on Amirli Air Base on 19 July 2019, on Ashraf Base in Diyala Governorate on 28 July 2019, and on Al-Saqar Base in a suburb of Baghdad on 12 August 2012.

          These attacks fueled internal conflict in Iraq between the various political powers, which appeared to have heard Israel’s message. In August 2012, Mida, a right-wing Israeli website for political research, stated that: “Israel has warned Iraq more than once — including through US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — that the continued construction of infrastructure encouraged by Iran, which poses a threat to Israel, will lead to attacks, such as those that have taken place against Iranian sites in Syria.” At the same time, Israel published information revealing the names of Iranian figures involved in extending the country’s Syrian activities to Iraq, which is an established method for making threats.

V: The Russian factor

          Russia’s sudden arrival in Syria, with its striking military might, terrified Tel Aviv at first. Israeli leaders realized that the Iranian axis had received a vital support that could tip the balance in the region, and that their military activities against Iran and its allied militias would henceforth be limited. As Russia became more involved in the Syrian conflict, Israel became concerned by the experience that the Syrian army was gaining of distinctive Russian fighting methods, a concern that was only exacerbated by the sight of Hezbollah members fighting alongside Russian soldiers and benefiting from Russian expertise. Israel was also keen to known whether, if Russia withdrew from Syria, it would leave behind the advanced weaponry that it had brought for use in the war (source: a study conducted by the Institute of National Security Research in Tel Aviv in May 2016 and published in July 2016 under the title Strategic Renewal).

          Although relations have warmed between Moscow and Tel Aviv, the Russian presence poses a number of threats. Israel does not trust Russia; it knows that Russia’s scale of priorities differs from its own and that they often have conflicting interests. Russia has never forgotten for a moment — nor has it allowed Israel to forget — that it is the stronger of the two countries. Most dangerously, Russia is working hard to rebuild the Syrian army.

          Benjamin Netanyahu’s frequent visits to Russia to meet with President Putin were designed to reassure Tel Aviv and promote coordination. Russia also wants to improve its relations with Israel, with which it shares some equally important interests. First, Russia is keen to avoid a military clash with Israel. Although Russia is confident that it would emerge victorious from any conflict, however small, it is concerned about revealing any weaknesses where Israel’s weapons or performance would have the advantage. Second, Russia is keen that Israel should cease its military attacks against the Syrian army and should take no further action to undermine the regime. Third, Russia hopes to gain Israeli support in the international arena, and through it the support of the US Congress in particular, with a view to lifting the sanctions on Russia imposed in response to the Ukraine crisis. Since intervening militarily in Syria in September 2015, Putin has managed to convince Netanyahu that Russia’s presence is in Israel’s interests, as Russia is there primarily to eliminate ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and other terrorist organizations and to restore stability to Syria, and that the Assad regime, which has honored the Separation of Forces Agreement for more than four decades, is the safe choice for Israel. He has also assured Netanyahu that he understands Israel’s security interests in Syria and that he is willing to take them into account during his relations with his Iranian allies.

          The two sides have therefore found more fertile ground for cooperation than for hostility. Moscow still views Iran’s involvement in Syria as entirely legitimate, however, just as it sees its own intervention as legitimate. Russia also considered Iran, together with Turkey, to be one of the guarantors of the agreement on Syria reached during the Astana talks, which Russia led. Moscow believes that Israel could yet jeopardize its achievements in Syria, given its proven military capabilities and its potential to become an influential power in regional efforts to curb growing Iranian influence in the region.

VI: The USA

          Despite the close relations between Israel and the USA, and the personal relationship between Netanyahu and Trump in particular, US policy in the Middle East — especially in Syria and towards Iran — has ignored the views of the Israeli Government and eroded Israeli trust in the US administration. Trump’s efforts to meet with President Rouhani, his dismissal of former National Security Advisor John Bolton (who was particularly close to the Israeli right), and the USA’s withdrawal from Syria, it abandonment of the Kurds, and its agreement with Turkey on the invasion of northern Syria have worried the Israeli political and security institutions, giving rise to the old belief that “we can rely only on ourselves”.

          The Yedioth Ahronoth published an article stating that: “Israeli officials have revealed that the US administration feels frustrated and disappointed by Israeli domestic policy and by the partisan crisis preventing the political aspects of the ‘deal of the century’ from being agreed, which has led to months of stagnation.” After Netanyahu failed to win a landslide victory in the September 2019 elections against Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, officials told the newspaper that: “The Americans are very disappointed by the situation. The officials who spoke to President Trump recently said that he was very frustrated by Netanyahu and was speaking negatively about him”, adding that “Trump does not like losers.”

          Despite the rocky relationship between the two leaders resulting from the events in Syria and the situation regarding the “deal of the century”, there is no denying that the relationship between the two governments at a fundamental level remains strong. Even though differences have arisen between the two political leaders, it has not affected their shared strategic interests. To dispel any last doubts in that regard, the Trump administration recently declared the legitimacy of Israeli settlements.

          Although Israeli relations with Jordan and Egypt are less than ideal, positive developments have been achieved in the security arrangements with Egypt, with Israel agreeing to breach the Camp David Accords in order to allow Egyptian tanks, track vehicles, and aircraft to move throughout Sinai, including Zones A and B, which the agreement stated must remain demilitarized. Tel Aviv has also recommended that German shipbuilding factories sell a type of modern submarine to Egypt. Nonetheless, there is some way to go before relations are fully normalized. Egyptians do not visit Israel, and most Israeli tourists in Egypt are Israeli Arab citizens, the so-called Arabs of ‘48.

Summary

          Israel’s view of Syria as a fierce strategic enemy has been reinforced by the Syrian civil war. According to military and intelligence accounts, Iran has thoroughly infiltrated Syria, extending along the length and breadth of the Fertile Crescent and turning it into a military and economic corridor that poses a threat to Israel’s existence. Even if Israel’s dismantling of the Syrian army helped it make great gains and turned the balance of power in its favor, new elements — namely Iran and the militias under its control — have taken the place of the Syrian army and begun to work alongside it. These new forces are surrounding Israel at its borders with Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. To make matters worse for Israel, the US administration has taken the decision to withdraw from the Middle East, which the Israelis see as a form of abandonment, leaving them isolated in the middle of a battlefield. Russia’s entry into the fray via Syria also changed the equation. Although the Russians have coordinated their military activities and movements with Israel, the Israelis feel restricted in their activities in Syrian territory, both on the ground and in the air.

 

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