Israel versus Iran via Syria

  • Paula
Israeli soldiers went onto high alert this week along the country’s northern border with Syria.
by PAULA SLIER | Jan 24, 2019

This occurred as the Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted an Iranian surface-to-surface rocket fired by Tehran’s Quds Force from Syria.

The missile was more accurate than previous ones, and its interception was witnessed in broad daylight by thousands of civilians skiing on Mount Hermon, Israel’s highest peak.

In response, Jerusalem launched a massive wave of air strikes, hitting a number of Iranian targets in Syria, and killing more than 20 fighters.

Taking credit for the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lashed out at Tehran, warning, “Anyone who tries to hurt us, we will hurt them.”

This public acknowledgement is a shift in Israeli policy. Until recently, Israeli officials were ambiguous about their military action in Syria. But earlier this month, Netanyahu was already saying that Israeli jets had attacked Iranian weapons warehouses and struck Lebanese Hezbollah targets “hundreds of times” over the past few years.

The prime minister stressed that, “The accumulation of recent attacks proves that we are more determined than ever to take action against Iran in Syria, just as we had promised.”

Jerusalem has long viewed Tehran’s presence in Syria as a direct threat, and is committed to stopping its expansion. Outgoing Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff General Gadi Eisenkot also, for the first time, confirmed details of the secret war Israel has been waging across her northern border.

So why is the leadership now openly owning up to its operations?

Part of the answer lies in American President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement last month that he was withdrawing all 2 000 United States forces from Syria. While these troops are not allowed to engage in battle or go on the offensive, their presence has been a deterrent to Iran. It has stopped Iranian fighters from reaching certain locations.

It also meant that Israel was not alone in managing the Iranian threat, and just as importantly, wasn’t perceived by Tehran to be the only one countering its advancement inside Syria. Now, Israelis are afraid that Iran and its Hezbollah proxy will move into the vacuum left behind.

The Israeli threats and declarations of what Israel has achieved in Syria is meant to frighten the Iranian leadership. But some observers are questioning whether this hasn’t in fact done the opposite, and prompted Tehran to save face by not allowing the threats to go unanswered.

Still, an IDF spokesperson said the rocket attack on Mount Hermon was planned months ago, so it’s possible recent Israeli proclamations might not have made any difference.

Trump has wanted to leave Syria for some time because he believes the US mission there – to assist the Kurds in driving out Islamic State – has been achieved.

For Trump, the remaining American troops are too small to influence either Iran or Russia from ending support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

As for the withdrawal’s effect on Israel, Trump has said he’s confident Jerusalem will not suffer. But Netanyahu is not taking any chances which is why, in addition to operating more openly against Iran in Syria, he’s also likely to increase Israeli attacks there. The prime minister knows he has Trump’s unconditional backing to do this, and Washington has committed itself to resupplying Israel with precision-guided munitions and intelligence.

It’s a different story with Russia. Trump’s intention to withdraw not only from Syria, but from the Middle East, has helped bolster Russian dominance in the region. And unlike Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticised Israeli strikes in Syria.

With the Americans increasingly out of the picture, Moscow, an ally of Assad and Iran, is a less certain partner for the Israelis.

Following the flare up in violence this week, Iran’s air force chief said his country’s military was “impatient” to fight a “decisive war that will bring about Israel’s disappearance. Our armed forces are prepared for the day when Israel with be destroyed,” he said.

The big question, of course, is whether this recent war-of-words will lead to an all-out Israel-Iran war, one that might potentially draw in Hezbollah, the US, Russia, and others.

On the one hand, as Israel escalates its campaign against both Iran and Hezbollah, such a war becomes more likely. And yet most pundits agree that Israeli strikes, even if increased in frequency and/or intensity, are unlikely to provoke a wider conflict. Tehran doesn’t want this, especially because it has the weaker army of the two – and knows it.

What’s unclear, though, is whether Trump will remain true to his word to withdraw after four American soldiers were killed a few days ago in a suicide bombing in northern Syria. Islamic State claimed responsibility, and is boasting online that it outlasted the Americans. It is possible, as some are arguing, that Trump’s withdrawal announcement emboldened the group, and that he might now be less reluctant to leave.

Trump’s critics warn that by taking his troops out, he will be undoing all the achievements of the US-led campaign in Syria.

The American president is in a difficult position. So far his military has begun withdrawing some equipment, but not soldiers.

What is certain is that Trump will not renege on countering Iran’s influence in the region. It is one of his major foreign policy goals, and something he is committed to – with or without his troops in Syria. Israel can find comfort in this.


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