Israel’s Muddled Anti-Iran Policy in Syria

Published at The Arab Weekly

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 20 January 2019

Satellite pictures before and after Israel’s attack on an Iranian weapons cache in Damascus, January 2019 [source]

The Israeli government has launched an air attack into Syria and stepped up its rhetoric about further interventions against Iranian targets in the country. Despite this, there remains a significant gap between Israeli words and deeds.

Israel’s strike in Syria January 11 is believed to have destroyed an Iranian weapons depot at Damascus International Airport. Israel leaked satellite pictures of the damage and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave a rare confirmation that Israel was behind the attack.

Speaking at a ceremony to install the new chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces, Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi, January 15, Netanyahu said: “I advise [the Iranians] to get out of [Syria] quickly because we will continue our offensive policy as we promised and as we do without fear and without pause.”

Outgoing Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot gave an interview for the Opinion page of The New York Times echoing Netanyahu’s bellicose statements. “We struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit,” Eisenkot said.

Times Columnist Bret Stephens wrote: “[Eisenkot] succeeded in humbling, at least for the now, [Qassem] Soleimani, the wily commander of Iran’s elite al-Quds Force, which has spearheaded Tehran’s ambitions to make itself a regional hegemon. …

“In January 2017, Eisenkot obtained the government’s unanimous consent for a change in the rules of the game. Israeli attacks became near-daily events. In 2018 alone, the air force dropped a staggering 2,000 bombs.”

The problem with this optimistic assessment is that it is not true and Israeli officials are the best evidence of its untruth.

As General Amir Eshel was leaving his position as commander of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in August 2017, he revealed for the first time that Israel had been striking at Iran and its Hezbollah subsidiary in Syria.

Eshel said that, since 2012, the number of such actions, mostly against arms convoys, was approaching 100. In September 2018, Israeli officials said that over the previous year, IAF had carried out 200 air strikes in Syria. This is a long way short of thousands.

More than the arithmetic, the notion that Israel has even paused the Iranian imperial tide is risible. The head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) might be expected to say that his regime “will keep its military advisers, revolutionary forces and its weapons in Syria” but it does not make him wrong. Even if the signals that Israel is going to escalate its kinetic attacks on Iranian assets propping up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and supplying Hezbollah are taken at face value, this would be after a 4-month lull.

Israel disastrously misjudged Russia’s intentions and capacity in Syria and it therefore took until the end of last year for it to begin to realise that Moscow was working hand-in-glove with Iran to expand the theocracy’s influence.

By that time, Russia had installed advanced anti-aircraft systems, under a reality-defying pretext, and Israel chose to take it seriously. Just two IAF strikes occurred late last year—on November 29 and December 25. Any “de-escalation” that the Israelis believe Iran is engaged in—let alone transfer of activity to Iraq—is better described as consolidation.

As with the operation to uproot the IRGC-Hezbollah tunnels into Israel from southern Lebanon, many suspect that Israel’s decision to end its ambiguity over the strikes into Syria is related to Netanyahu’s electoral calculations. This explanation is simplistic. The US proposal to draw down its troops in Syria and the shifting dynamics in Syria, as Assad cements his victory, leave Israel exposed and a message had to be sent that the Jewish state can take care of its own issues.

The bigger issue is that Israel is considering tactical options amid a strategic failure. The fall of Daraa, in southern Syria, last July brought Iranian forces onto a third Israeli border and took away virtually all the leverage Israel had inside Syria. It eliminated Israel’s rebel proxies and it was a clear demonstration—even before US President Donald Trump announced the US withdrawal—that the Americans had no serious anti-Iran policy, certainly not one that entailed helping push back the Iranians on the ground, where it mattered, in Syria.

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