by Ehud Eilam
Israel and Iran have been sworn enemies since the late 1970s. Tensions have risen as Iran has supported proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, as a way of confronting Israel indirectly. In turn, Israel has attacked Iranian targets in an effort to degrade their efforts. Since 2011, the conflict between the nations has been played out through the Syrian civil war. This article examines the flow of power across Syria, and how tactics and outlooks have changed over the course of the war.
Following the end of the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah, supported by significant Iranian aid, invested heavily in a military buildup. Hezbollah acquired rockets and missiles such as Fajr–5 and Fateh–110, with arms transiting into Lebanon through Syria. Hezbollah can use these weapons to attack Israel, while putting Lebanon at a huge risk, furthering their own objectives as an Iranian proxy force. These flows of weapons and expertise are enabled by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of both Iran and Hezbollah.
Assad can use Hezbollah against Israel but Assad does not a war with Israel, due to his enormous weaknesses, mostly the military and economic ones. Assad does not want Hezbollah or Iran to drag Assad into a war with Israel that will seriously jeopardize Assad’s regime. Assad who barely managed to survive almost ten years of civil war in Syria might lose it all in a matter of days if he confronts Israel. Nevertheless Israel does not seek war with Assad, unless there is no other choice. Iran has to take that into consideration. After Iran and Hezbollah invested so much in saving the Assad’s regime, losing it will be a major blow to Iran and its Lebanese proxy. Therefore Iran has to calculate its steps carefully. This is an important leverage for Israel in regard to Assad, Iran and Hezbollah.
Between 2006-2011 Israel had little option but to tolerate the flow of weapons from Syria to Lebanon. Any Israeli military action to degrade the flow of weapons risked a war with Syria, a war which Israel sought to avoid, let alone since the Syrian military was quite strong. The Syrian civil war in 2011 changed the balance of power between Israel and Syria and offered Israel an opportunity to bomb inside Syria. The war drastically eroded Syria’s armed forces, thus reducing the options for the Syrian military to respond to Israeli air strikes inside Syria. This presented Israel with a strategic opportunity to destroy targets inside Syria with a lower risk threshold. Israel was quick to exploit this opportunity to degrade both the Syrian regime and Iranian proxies in this old - new theatre. Yet Israel at least at the first few years did not take responsibility for those strikes, in order to avoid an escalation. With all the massive chaos and destruction of the Syrian civil war, involving many sides, directly or not, an Israeli air strike here and there did not cause much of an impact. It was exactly what Israel relied upon.
Assad’s weakness emboldened its main ally, Iran (upon whose support he became increasingly dependent) to increase its influence in Syria. Israel is officially neutral in the Syrian civil war but opposes the involvement of Iran in Syria. This is because of their history of supplying weapons to non state organizations which attacked Israel. As such, their strategy has been to reduce the risk to Israel. The latter already regretted it allowed Hezbollah to create a huge fire base in Lebanon, aimed at Israel. Of course stopping it, prior to 2011, might have caused war. Either way Israel has been determent not to let Iran to build another major fire base, in Syria. It is important to remember that Syria had already quite an arsenal but most of it was destroyed / fired during the civil war. Israel did not want to replace the declining Syrian firepower with an Iranian one, on Syrian soil. Israel, since 1973, managed to deter Syria from attacking Israel but with Iran it might have been more complicated. Therefore it was better to wipe out the Iranian base in Syria, before it will be too late.
Since 2012 the IAF (Israeli Air Force) has bombed targets inside Syria focusing on targets such as long range missiles. In a sign of how assertive Israel has become, the IAF has now conducted “more than 200 airstrikes inside Syria against more than 1,000 targets linked to Iran and its proxies”. The aim of such missions has been twofold: Firstly to reduce the number of weapons flowing to Hezbollah and degrade Iranian proxy forces and presence in Syria. Secondly, Israel has also bombed targets linked directly to President Assad’s regime.
Israel’s initial attacks into Syria came as a surprise, including to the people of Israel. This was part of a strategy to deceive Syria’s air defence network. The Israeli Government, in each of the air strikes inside Syria, took a calculated risk by not providing an alert to its people (so they can run to shelters) risking that Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah, would not retaliate. Israel did not want its opponents to mistakenly assume that Israel was about to go to war and sought to exploit the opportunity in secret. Even if Syria or Iran had understood that Israel was only launching a tactical raid the IAF would have lost tactical surprise which might have allowed Syrian anti-aircraft defences to be better prepared. Whilst Syria’s air defences remain formidable, and with some exceptions, the quality of the IAF and their technical superiority has allowed the country a relatively free hand to conduct strikes into Syria. Until now, during the sorties in Syria since 2012, the IAF lost only one aircraft, an F- 16, on February, 10, 2018. In the future Syria might use its S – 300, an advanced antiaircraft system, against the IAF that has been getting ready to confront this system but the IAF still might absorb loses.
Iran also seized the strategic opportunities presented by the Syrian civil war. Iran’s outline objective has been to secure the Assad’s regime. However, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps uses the conflict to further establish a network of bases and supply routes to increase the flow of weapons and support to foreign proxy forces, including Hezbollah. These moves should be seen as an extension of Iran’s wider aim of equipping proxy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Russia came to the assistance of Assad in September 2015. Since then, Israel has needed to coordinate its strikes in Syria within Russian controlled airspace. Russia’s objectives have been clear; In simplistic terms, Russia wishes to increase its own regional influence and denude America power in the region. Such a strategy creates friction with both the Israeli and Iranian objectives in Syria, but does not come into direct confrontation with either, so far.
Matthew Kroenig explains in his new and important book the rivalry between the United States and other powers such as Russia. The United States tries to reduce its involvement in Syria but there might still be a crisis between the United States and Russia because of Iran or Syria.
Iran has needed to develop multiple strike or deterrence options it could use to deter Israel from bombing objectives in Syria. To date, Iran has relied on proxy fighters such as Hezbollah and some rocket attacks, together with cyber attacks. Another, bolder, option would be developing nuclear weapons, but such a strategy will take time and is likely to provoke a direct attack onto Iranian soil. Iranian tactics will need to evolve to withstand Israeli military action if they are to continue fighting in Syria.
In early April 2020 “Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami unveiled new weaponized drones he said were capable of flying up to 45,000 feet and traveling more than 930 miles away, putting Israel in range”. Such drones are unlikely be launched from Iran itself. Instead, Iran will look to establish launch sites in Syria or Iraq. Likewise, Iran has continued to develop long range missiles and has tested them with proxy forces in Yemen and even linked missiles with drones to attack targets in Iraq. These provide Iran with deniable options to continue its campaign of destabilization across the region.
Israel’s ability to assert power into Syria is, in part, because of an Iranian withdrawal. Some reports have suggested that Iran reduced its presence in Syria in recent months by redeploying some of its soldiers out of its camps there. This move could be a temporary or even a deception. Yet, if it is a permanent shift then it can be argued that Israel’s strategy of attrition over 2011-2020 was successful and made the costs of Iran’s military campaign too high to sustain, for now.
Post Civil War Competition
Another geo-strategic trend is also visible. With a mix of Russia and Iranian support, coupled with US led strikes onto Daesh, the Syrian civil war is in decline. Because of this Syria remains a weakened and divided state. With 5.6 million refugees and 6.2 million internally displaced people, the nation will take at least a decade to rebuild. The consequences of this is that there is now a competition to become the dominant power in Syria in the post-civil war era.
Iran’s presence in Syria was undermined by the US strike that killed General Solaimani and deep domestic hardships due to US sanctions, corruption, poor management, low oil price and the impact of COVID19, which has caused severe internal problems for the Iranian regime. Yet Iran is unlikely to give up its grip over Syria easily. More than 2,000 Iranian troops were killed in Syria and Iran has spent more than $20B on their war effort. Iran is now looking to maximise the return on its investment and increase its influence in Syria despite resistance from Israel and continuing frictions with Russia.
Iran’s strategic outcome now appears to be to turn Syria from a dependent ally into an Iranian proxy. In turn, this would allow a free flow of weapons and continued terrorists attacks including against Israel. Iran will also seek to make cash profits from the rehabilitation of Syria; this objective has become more important in the face of wider economic damage to Iran’s economy.
Despite the pressure on Iran from Israel, then, Iran has a strategic rationale to maintain a long-term presence in Syria. But to do so, Iran will need to further change its tactical outlook and continue to develop the tactics described above. It is likely that Syria will remain a battlefield for the conflict between the nations for the foreseeable future.
To draw some concluding thoughts Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, and Russia all seek to prevent a major escalation in Syria. Especially one that might deteriorate into a full-scale war. Yet both Israel and Iran have to calculate their actions carefully. All sides need be aware how much they can provoke and test their opponents’ willingness whilst protecting vital interests.
Dr. Ehud Eilam, a Senior Fellow in the Gold Institute for International Strategy, has been dealing and studying Israel’s national security for more than 25 years. He served in the Israeli military and later on he worked for the Israeli Ministry of Defense as a researcher. This article is based on his article published by the Wavell Room website on July 21.