House of Cards: Israel's Syria strategy

Due in part to Russia, war between Israel and Iran is not on the horizon, despite rising tensions in Syria.

Malcolm Hoenlein (center) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Alexander Garden in Moscow, on May 9ceives his honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University at the Tel Aviv Fairgrou (photo credit: KREMLIN/REUTERS)
Malcolm Hoenlein (center) Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Alexander Garden in Moscow, on May 9ceives his honorary doctorate from Bar-Ilan University at the Tel Aviv Fairgrou
(photo credit: KREMLIN/REUTERS)
THE FIRST two weeks of May were very hectic and dramatic for Israeli leaders and security chiefs in dealing with Iran. On May 1, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that Mossad operatives had stolen Iran’s central nuclear archive, proving that the Islamic Republic had violated its nuclear deal with the six major world powers. A week later, in light of the revelations, and more importantly, the contents of the stolen documents and disks, the US cancelled and pulled out of the deal.
A few hours after President Donald Trump announced his decision, Israeli intelligence prevented a revenge attack by Iran. The Israel Air Force (IAF) attacked and destroyed an Iranian mobile launcher in Syria that carried rockets slated to be fired against Israel.
Israeli air strike on a Syrian army position with significant Iranian presence in the Kisweh area south of Damascus, May 8, 2018 (Reuters)
Twenty-four hours later, the intelligence proved insufficient. From another base in Syria, Iran launched 32 rockets against Israeli military positions on the Golan Heights. Four rockets were intercepted and the rest fell in Syrian territory.
Within hours, Israel retaliated by attacking 70 Iranian positions in Syria. The targets were intelligence installations, rocket depots, army bases, logistic warehouses that Iran had built in the last year in Syria, as well as Syrian anti-aircraft systems, which fired at the Israeli planes. The operation, code-named “House of Cards” by the IDF, was the largest Israeli attack on Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War – and the closest Israel and Iran have come to the brink of a direct confrontation.
But the factor that likely played the greatest role but was most overlooked in galvanizing Israel to act against the Iranian presence in Syria is Russia.
PM Netanyahu stresses importance of coordination between the IDF and the Russian military prior to taking off for Moscow to meet with Putin, May 9, 2018 (GPO)
Hours before the IAF launched its massive strike, Netanyahu flew to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and attend the annual Victory Day military parade commemorating Russia's defeat of Nazi Germany. It was their ninth face-to-face meeting in the last 32 months – since Russia deployed its forces in Syria to save the regime of Bashar Assad.
Following the meeting, a senior Russia official said that his country was not negotiating a deal to supply the Syrian army with advanced S300 anti-aircraft systems. Israel has consistently opposed the deal, fearing the batteries would limit IAF freedom of action and maneuverability over the Syrian sky.
Later, a senior IAF officer, briefing Israeli reporters, admitted that Israel had coordinated in advance with Russia without telling it when and where the House of Cards operation would take place in general terms, without providing exact details.
All these factors taken together, it seems that the Kremlin has slightly changed its double game in Syria with regard to Israel.
Originally, the double game meant that while Russia cooperated militarily with Iran to help the Assad regime in its war against Syrian rebels, it tolerated and turned a blind eye to Israeli strikes against Iran.
Russia still needs Iranian advisers and commanders and their proxies – Shi’ite militias from Iraq, Lebanon (Hezbollah), Pakistan and Afghanistan – to be present in Syria as “boots on the ground.” But as the Assad regime extends its control over more territory, Russia needs Iran to a lesser extent. In a cynical way, Russia no longer cares, and maybe it is even happy, if the growing Iranian presence and influence in Syria is challenged and blocked by Israeli military actions.
Iranian-Syrian relations have come a long way to reach their present peak. Since 1970, Syria has been ruled by a family dynasty – the Assads, who belong to the Alawite sect, which is an offspring of the Shi’ite community.
But it isn’t only religious roots that bind the two regimes. They were also tied in the past by a common rivalry with Iraq and hatred of its late leader, Saddam Hussein.
The late Syrian president Hafez el-Assad, who died in 2000, respected but also suspected Iran. His cooperation with the country was cautious and limited. Even his son and heir, Bashar Assad, didn’t fully trust Iran when he came to power. He concealed from Iran his ambitious and secret program to build nuclear bombs, a plan that was destroyed in September 2007 when the IAF demolished Syria’s nuclear reactor.
But after that, Bashar strengthened his relations with Iran. He allowed Iran to use Syria as a hub for resupplying Hezbollah with rockets and missiles after the Lebanese Shi’ite movement suffered a blow at the hands of Israel in the 2006 war.
But the turning point came after the eruption of civil war in Syria in March 2011.
Fearing he would lose power to the mosaic of rebel groups, including al-Qaeda (and later ISIS) supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the US, Assad asked Iran to help repel his enemies.
Iran gladly agreed. First, it sent Hezbollah warriors to salvage the Syrian regime, then its own advisers and commanders, and eventually, Shi’ite militias to serve as cannon fodder. Indeed, Iran and its proxies, together with a later Russian intervention, rescued Assad. As the combined efforts repelled and defeated ISIS, and as the Assad regime regained more territory, Iran moved to phase two of its plan.
It began deepening its military deployment in Syria with three aims. One, to establish a land corridor from its territory via Iraq to Syria and then to Lebanon, as part of its expansionist policy to set strong footholds in the entire Middle East by reaching the Mediterranean and the Red Sea via Yemen.
The second aim is to reap economic benefits in Syria, particularly by gaining oil and gas concessions as well as construction deals.
The third aim is to have a military presence near the Israeli border in order to threaten the Jewish state from three directions: long-range missiles from Iran; the huge missile and rocket arsenal (120,000) of Hezbollah in Lebanon; and the Hezbollah presence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Iran’s ambitious grand strategy is challenged in two respects: one, in a minor way, by Russia, which also seeks to benefit economically through rebuilding the new Syria; and secondly, in a big way, by Israel. Israel can’t allow itself to be threatened by two Shi’ite enemies – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran in Syria – that are plotting to encircle and besiege the Jewish state on its northern fronts.
After ignoring the challenge for some time, and getting off to a slow start, a year ago, Israel identified and understood the real threat and began countering it.
THE ISRAELI strategy has four dimensions.
Firstly, Israel wants to maintain the mechanism of coordination and cooperation (via direct military and diplomatic channels) with Russia to avoid clashes in the Syrian skies between the air force and air defense systems of the two countries.
Secondly, Israel has deeply penetrated Iran’s intelligence in depth to collect accurate information of its intentions and capabilities in both Iran and Syria.
Thirdly, Israel has launched a psychological campaign against Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of al-Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Soleimani is one of the most powerful and influential figures in Iran, adored and worshipped by many and a confidant of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. He is considered the main architect of Iran’s expansionist policy in the region in general, and in Syria in particular. By “marking” Soleimani, Israel hopes to create a wedge between him and the political-religious echelon and other military commanders in order to portray him as the villain acting against basic Iranian interests.
Fourthly, Israeli embarked on a gradual military campaign, which reached its peak in May, to destroy Iranian deployment in Syria. It seems that Israeli policy has, for the time being, the upper hand. Militarily speaking, in Syria, Iran has long land supply lines, poorly trained militias and a lack of air force and air defense systems. Thus, it is no match for Israeli superiority in the air, fire power and intelligence.
But the exchange of punches has not resulted in an Israeli knockout. True, at the moment, Iran is under great pressure. The US decision to pull out of the nuclear deal and impose new sanctions are threatening to once again cripple Iran’s economy, which is already deteriorating with weak local currency and workers’ strikes. Its military, which is consuming large chunks of the national budget, is overstretched on four fronts: Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
For now, war between Israel and Iran, as some Israeli and international commentators wrongly predicted, is not on the horizon.
Nevertheless, Iran is determined to continue to consolidate its deployment in Syria and to challenge Israel. No doubt, it will draw lessons from the recent events in order to improve its intelligence and military capabilities.
So too will Israel. Time after time, Israeli leaders and military chiefs have said they will not tolerate an Iranian presence in Syria, certainly not one close to Israel’s border.
The outcome: the basic contradictory reality and interests of the two enemies remain.