Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks overlooking the border between Israel and Syria.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Since 2011 there has been a civil war raging in Syria. In recent years Syrian President Bashar Assad, with massive support from his allies Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, had managed to turn the tide of war in his favor. Iran strives to exploit its help to Assad to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, which Israel strongly opposes.
Israel stayed out of the Syrian war, focusing on containing the tension on its border with Syria, in the Golan Heights, where there have been clashes between Assad and his foes. Israel also launched more than 100 strikes in Syria, most of them aimed at destroying deliveries of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. It caused friction between Israel and Assad but so far has not escalated into a serious crisis. This might change soon. Israel has to be careful not to be dragged into an unnecessary war.
On February 10, 2018, an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), which was launched from Syria, penetrated into Israel but was shot down almost immediately after it crossed the border. Israel retaliated very quickly, by destroying the UAV’s command and control center, which was located deep inside Syria, at T4, a military base. On April 9 Israel bombed T4 again.
Both times Iran absorbed the Israeli attacks on T4 without retaliating, although Iran had taken casualties in both attacks.
During the February 10 attack Assad, frustrated by the ongoing Israeli strikes, launched a barrage of 26 anti-aircraft missiles, which brought down an Israeli F-16I fighter jet. Yet Assad did not attack Israel directly, fearing an escalation.
Although Assad has been winning the civil war he is well aware that Israel is much more powerful than the rebels he faces inside Syria.
Assad’s military, which used to be quite strong prior to the war, is no match for the IDF. Assad could call on his allies to assist him, but Iran and Hezbollah, let alone Russia, don’t seek war with Israel.
In the future Iran and/or Hezbollah might seek such a war.
Assad has some military capability, including a limited chemical arsenal. Assad used it during the war, even lately. This was not the reason for the Israeli attack on the T4 base, the same as Israel’s previous attacks were not a response to Assad’s chemical attacks against Syrians. Israel only denounced Assad for his actions.
Israel does not want the use of chemical weapon to become acceptable in the region, let alone against Israel. However, Israel prefers for the international community, mostly the United States, to deal with this problem and punish Assad for these attacks.
On February 10 Israel responded to losing an aircraft to Assad’s anti-aircraft fire by striking his air defense network, which may have deterred Assad since on April 9 Assad did not repeat the massive anti-aircraft of February 10.
On February 10 Russia might have encouraged Assad to fire at the Israeli aircraft, while on April 9 Russia’s role was accusing Israel of carrying out the strike. It was a rare move by Russia.
Following the official Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war, which started in October 2015, Israel reached an understanding with Russia with regard to coordinating air strikes inside Syria. Russia has in Syria fighters and long-range anti-aircraft missile batteries, which could intercept Israeli aircraft. Iran collaborates with Russia but the two states have also conflicts of interests, including in Syria. Iran will like to see its sworn enemy, Israel, confronting Russia in Syria. Israel should do its best to avoid such a clash.
For Israel the Iranian deployment in Syria is a growing danger, even if Iran still has not attacked Israel from there. Iran first needs to get organized inside Syria and this exactly what Israel seeks to prevent.
It is not yet clear what kind of deployment Iran plans to have in Syria and what its purpose will be, but for sure it will be aimed against Israel.
In spite of the risks to Israel from the Iranian presence in Syria, such presence could also be exploited by Israel to its advantage.
Israel could strike Iranian forces in Syria, especially if they attack Israel, and so humiliate Iran, which would have an effect on Iran’s position in the Middle East.
Israel could also claim that since Iran is attacking Israel from Syria, Israel has the right to defend itself, for example by striking Iran itself, perhaps its nuclear sites. Israel can also go after Assad, holding him responsible for whatever happens in Syria. Iran will not want to lose Assad, after investing so much in keeping him in power, which could serve as leverage against Iran.
The bottom line for Israel is that Iran’s grip on Syria is seen as a risk – but there might be also some opportunities for Israel in this fragile new situation.The author is an author and analyst of Israel’s national security who used to work for the Israeli military.