Send a clear message to Iran, Hezbollah and Assad

Breaking this dangerous cycle will require diplomatic intervention from the US and, more importantly, Russia with its direct line to the Assad regime in Damascus.

February 18, 2018 21:50
4 minute read.
A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter in Afrin, Syria

A Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter in Afrin, Syria. (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)

A week ago we saw the inherent danger of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Iran launched its first direct military operation against Israel, dispatching a drone from the Tiyas Airbase in Syria’s central Homs region. The Israelis used an Apache helicopter to intercept and destroy the drone, then sent eight fighter jets to destroy the Iranian command center. One of the Israeli F-16s was abandoned by its pilots over Israel and Syrian anti-aircraft fire reached Israeli territory, triggering extended emergency activities in Israel’s northern communities.

In a dangerous escalation, Iran tested Israel’s red lines in preparation for a new war on Israel’s northern front – a question of “when,” not “if” – a development which the Israeli government has repeatedly warned it will not tolerate. The government in Jerusalem has demanded time and again that any agreement mediated by world powers to end the civil war in Syria must include a specific stipulation preventing Iranian-backed forces from establishing a permanent military presence along the border.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent an explicit message ahead of the February 11 cabinet meeting. “We inflicted on Saturday [February 10] a heavy blow to Iranian and Syrian forces,” he said. “We made clear to everyone that our rules of engagement will not change in any way. We will continue to harm anyone who tries to harm us. This was our policy and this will remain our policy.”

But the mullahs’ regime was not the only audience for this message. Hezbollah is already threatening Israel from Lebanon, where the terrorist group has stockpiled more than 150,000 rockets and missiles and transformed hundreds of civilian villages into “military strongholds” to guarantee mass casualties during their next war with Israel.

In a similar vein to its support for Hamas, Iran has also bankrolled Gaza-based terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) with hundreds of millions. It is believed that Iran’s funding package to PIJ is in the order of $70 million per annum out of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) budget.

Iran’s leadership owes a great debt of gratitude to Western powers for bolstering the Islamic Republic’s dream of linking Tehran, Damascus, Baghdad and Beirut in a Shi’ite arc of influence.

The 2015 nuclear accord between six world powers and Iran revived Iran’s ailing economy, and the lifting of international sanctions triggered a stampede of European companies beating a path to Iran to secure lucrative business contracts. And all the while Iran remains a nuclear-threshold state that threatens regional and international security.

After the signing of the nuclear deal, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made no secret of his country’s true intentions. Israel “will not see [the end] of these 25 years” he vowed in July 2015, adding that “Iran will support anyone who strikes at Israel.” Two-and-a-half years down the line, we know that Khamenei wasn’t just paying lip service to popular demands. The territorial expansion of Iran and its allies in the Middle East has brought the Islamic Republic closer to Israel’s border than ever before.

Again, the short-sighted policy of Western powers aided the mullah regime’s grand plan of ascendancy. The obsessive focus on the war against the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria left the door wide open for Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militia. In Iraq, the Obama administration even provided air cover to the same groups that during the 2003 US-led intervention murdered American troops.

Khamenei could not have hoped for a better outcome.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah, the terrorist group in complete political and military control of Lebanon, has over 10,000 troops stationed in Syria. Together with the Quds Force, the extraterritorial wing of the IRGC, and local Shi’ite militia, Hezbollah played a central role in the survival of the regime.

Now that Assad’s position seems to have stabilized after the regime recaptured large swaths of territory, Iran appears to be aiming for more than just regime survival. In October 2016, the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Muhammad Bagheri, floated the idea of establishing an array of military installations on Syrian soil, as well as a naval, air and intelligence base. And in November, aerial images emerged of a permanent Iranian base south of Damascus, only 50 kilometers from the Israeli Golan Heights.

Given the growing military capabilities and territorial expansion of these hostile elements, Israel and the United States, along with Europe and allied Arab states in the region, must together send a clear message to Iran, Hezbollah and Assad: any attack on Israel’s sovereignty comes with a very heavy price.

Breaking this dangerous cycle will require diplomatic intervention from the US and, more importantly, Russia with its direct line to the Assad regime in Damascus. The most effective way to prevent a future escalation with potentially catastrophic consequences for the region is to dismantle any Iranian presence along Israel’s border altogether.

The author is CEO and president of The Israel Project. This article originally appeared in The Hill.

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