The art of brinksmanship in Syria

Reports of a spate of recent Israeli attacks against Syrian military targets up the ante in an already risky policy of deepening involvement

December 13, 2017 16:30
IDF soldiers look over a border fence between the Israeli side of the Golan Heights and Syria

IDF soldiers look over a border fence between the Israeli side of the Golan Heights and Syria. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

 ACCORDING TO Syrian media reports – government and opposition alike – the Israel Air Force struck Syrian military targets as many as four times in one week in December.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied these reports.

Among the alleged targets was a Syrian military camp in al-Kiswah, 13 kilometers south of Damascus and 40 km from the Israeli border on the Golan Heights. According to some sources, the camp is intended as a base for up to 5,000 troops from Iran and/or its international Shi’ite militia.

The number of reported strikes and the quality of their targets in the span of just one week is exceptional in the history of Israeli military involvement in Syria.

Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, former commander of the IAF, recently boasted in interviews with Israeli media outlets that IAF planes have attacked Syrian military targets 100 times since the civil war broke out nearly seven years ago.

The strikes are a sign that Israel has extended its “red lines” in Syria – lines that reflect its perceived essential national security interests.

All in all, there are eight red lines. The first is a policy of non-intervention in the Syrian civil war, as reflected in the “it’s none of our business” attitude of Israel’s last two defense ministers, Ehud Barak and Moshe Ya’alon, as well as current Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

As the Syrian conflict has intensified, Israel has added two more red lines: the first, to maintain peace and tranquility along the border; and the second, to respond in measure to any fire, erroneous or not, like the spillover from clashes between the Syrian army and rebel groups.

Israeli retaliation has mostly been directed against Syrian army positions, under the premise that the Bashar Assad regime is responsible since he is the sovereign of the state.

A fourth line was drawn after Iran’s Quds Force, led by the legendary General Qassem Suleimani, planned together with Hezbollah to create cells of sleeper agents along Israel’s Golan Heights border. They consisted of local Syrian Druze and Palestinians who belonged to the remnants of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command founded nearly 50 years ago.
Alleged IAF strike on Iranian base in Syria Dec. 02, 2017.

The purpose was to activate these guerrilla cells (Israel defined them as terrorist infrastructure) in the event of clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus challenging Israel militarily on two fronts simultaneously.

The cells launched rockets and were involved in a few attacks against Israeli patrols along the border.

But according to intelligence reports, the IDF succeeded in disrupting these plans. Israeli jets, according to foreign reports, killed the cells’ leaders, including Jihad Mughniyeh in January 2015, the son of former Hezbollah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. An Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general was also killed by mistake, when he was traveling with Jihad Mughniyeh. Consequently, Israel crushed the Iranian-Hezbollah initiative.

TAKING ADVANTAGE of the chaos and the fact that so many foreign forces and states were operating on Syrian soil and air, Israel also began developing its presence there. It occasionally sent its air force to attack weapons storage and convoys supplying precise missiles from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah.

If a new war were to break out – the last one between the two sides was 11 and a half years ago – Israel would be concerned with both the quantity and quality of missiles that Hezbollah would launch.

Since the Second Lebanon War, Israel has established another “must,” which is actually a “must not.” Essentially, it is a strong message to the various rebel groups, particularly the former Syrian branch of al-Qaida now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham: Do not attack the Syrian Druze, especially those who live close to the border with Israel. If you do so, you will have a problem with us.

This red line was forced upon the Israeli military by the Israeli Druze community whose members serve in the IDF and are considered loyal to the Jewish state, but who also feel an affinity with their brethren across the border.

The Israeli message, backed by military threats, was well received, adding more irony to the already complex Syrian conflict: Syrian Druze are loyal to the Assad regime and hostile to Israel, but are defended by both.

Two and a half years ago, Russia deployed thousands of troops to Syria and sent dozens of its fighter planes and bombers to rescue the Assad regime, which was on the verge of total collapse. It worked: the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, saved his Syrian counterpart and ally.

Against this backdrop, Israel had to draw another line, perhaps the most important one of all: Avoid at all costs military confrontations and clashes with Russia in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invested a lot of time and energy to achieve this goal, flying to Moscow to meet with Putin six times – more than any other world leader in such a short span of time.

Netanyahu and Putin established special communication channels between the top echelon of the two armies, most importantly between the two air forces and their air defense systems. Through these channels, the two sides “deconflict,” exchange information and operational coordination and may even have tacit understandings not to intervene in each other's business.

IN THE meantime, with the collapse of ISIS and the relative stabilization of the Assad regime, a new reality is emerging in Syria.

Iran, with its thousands of troops and tens of thousands of allies (Hezbollah and the international Shi’ite militia), continues with its aspirations for regional hegemony. Tehran doesn’t want the blood of its soldiers and its allies to be spilled in vain. It is looking for war dividends in the form of deepening involvement and influence in Syria.

Syria is a key link in the chain of Iran’s desire to create a “Shi’ite crescent” of influence across the heart of the Middle East, from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, with a foothold on the Mediterranean. To actualize this vision, Iran needs military bases, airfields and seaports in Syria.

Iranian attempts to consolidate its involvement in Syria have pushed Israel recently to add more red lines, as emphasized in statements by Netanyahu, Liberman and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. They have repeatedly said that Israel will not allow an Iranian presence or that of its emissaries within 40 km of its border, and will not tolerate Iranian permanent military camps nor Iranian air, sea and intelligence bases on Syrian soil.

To emphasize these statements, make its position clear and show that it is serious, Israel, as Syrian media reported, has launched a spate of recent attacks. It can continue to do so.

The end result is that Russia is playing both sides of the fence: Helping to defend the Syrian regime while it is understood that it will not intervene between Israel and Syria.

Russia, Assad and Iran know all too well that Israel has the military capability to “ruin the party” and prevent Assad from ending the civil war and stabilizing the country.

As long as Russia doesn’t intervene, Israel will feel it has a free hand to impose its red lines. But there is one caveat: Iran.

Iran has long-term strategic aims and won’t give them up easily. If and when Iran realizes that Israeli actions are endangering its vital interests and damaging its national pride, it may well decide that it needs to retaliate against Israel in one way or another, whether directly, via the Syrian border, or more likely, indirectly, via its Hezbollah proxy or terrorist attacks against Israeli targets abroad.

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