Operation Northern Shield comes amid rising Iranian, Hezbollah rhetoric

In the last two months since the downing of the IL-20 and the deployment of the S-300, there has been relative quiet. But Hezbollah has continued its rhetoric of threats.

Preparations for 'Operation Northern Shield'  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Preparations for 'Operation Northern Shield'
Iran launched a new warship and tested a ballistic missile in the days before Israel launched Operation Northern Shield. Hezbollah released a video threatening sites throughout Israel. In addition, tensions in Syria have risen after a mysterious air strike south of Damascus last Thursday. Hezbollah claimed its fighters were not hurt in that air strike.
In the last year, as the Syrian civil war has wound down and the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and Russia, has largely defeated the Syrian rebels, Iran’s influence has grown. Iran has constructed a corridor of influence stretching from Tehran via Baghdad to Damascus and Beirut. This “road to the sea” enabled Iran to funnel weapons to Syria and its Hezbollah ally.
The IDF revealed in September that it had carried out more than 200 air strikes against Iran in the last year and a half. One of those strikes led to the downing of a Russian IL-20 in September, when Syrian air defense S-200s mistakenly shot down the Russian plane in Latakia while trying to defend against an attack.
Then Russia deployed the S-300 air defense system to Syria and has been training Syrians to use it. The Institute for the Study of War warned on November 30 that Russia’s air defense network was expanding in Syria.
The overall picture in Syria and Lebanon is of increasing Iranian activity, especially amid the Syrian regime’s attempt to consolidate its control. It has consolidated that control in southern Syria in the last six months after defeating the Syrian rebels near Quneitra and returning to the border.
As with the S-300, Russia has played a role there as well. Russia sent military police to the southern Quneitra area in Syria as the UN re-deployed along the ceasefire line. This was supposed to calm the north, and show that the regime was willing to return to the pre-2011 quiet.
In the last two months since the downing of the IL-20 and the deployment of the S-300, there has been relative calm. But Hezbollah has continued its rhetoric of threats. In addition, Iran has continued its activity.
For instance, an Iranian 747 flew to Beirut last week. The Fars Air Qeshm flight has been previously flagged for allegations it was involved in transporting arms. Not long after the flight landed and departed from Beirut, a separate incident raised tensions when airstrikes hit the area of al-Kiswah, south of Damascus.
Hezbollah claimed Sunday that its positions in Syria had not been hit in the air strike. This reveals that Hezbollah has positions in Syria, because it didn’t say that it has no positions south of Damascus, only that its positions were not affected.
Alongside Hezbollah’s threats, the increasing power of the Syrian regime to control its territory and Iran’s “road to the sea,” the regime in Tehran has also increased its rhetoric in recent months. It has boasted of new missiles almost every week, either missiles developed in Yemen, or those developed in Tehran.
On December 2, Tehran said that it was among the world’s “top missile powers” and said it would continue to test ballistic missiles. This came after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of testing a medium-range ballistic missile. Pompeo met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day after accusing Iran of testing the missile.
Hezbollah and Iran are riding a wave of success after their role in the Syrian civil war. Both have expanded their influence and their weapons systems. In the last months, reports emerged of new precision guidance systems sent from Tehran to Hezbollah. Israel has also warned about Hezbollah’s entrenchment in Beirut.
Hezbollah had been a major contributor to Syria’s war effort against the rebellion. After the signing of the Idlib agreement in September between Russia and Turkey, preventing a Syrian regime offensive, there has been some breathing space in Syria for Hezbollah to husband its resources and focus on bolstering them.
Iran’s role in Syria also faces growing opposition from Washington. Since the summer, the US administration has urged Iran to leave Syria and US policy in eastern Syria has shifted from fighting ISIS to also indicating that the US will only leave eastern Syria when Iranian-commanded forces leave the rest of Syria.
This has been more fully articulated in a November press conference with US's Syria Engagement representative James Jeffrey, who said the US goal was the withdrawal of “all Iranian-commanded forces.”
Now Iran faces a crossroads in Syria. As the US winds down the war with ISIS, entering its last bastion in Hajin on the Euphrates, the tension will increase between the US and Iran.
In addition, Russia has warned the US about its involvement in eastern Syria. Syria was on edge on Sunday after a US air strike against an ISIS target on Saturday night. Syria’s state media claimed the US-led coalition had struck its base. It has been on alert since then. Yet when news of Israel’s Operation Northern Shield emerged on Monday, the state media was initially silent, as were Hezbollah channels, indicating they want to see what transpires in the north.