Iran's creeping crescent and Israel's greatest strategic threat

Six years on from the start of Syria’s bloody civil war, Iranian machinations in the country have become the greatest strategic threat to Israel.

Hezbollah supporters carry portraits of the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (left), and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as they march in the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Hatta on March 18 (photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
Hezbollah supporters carry portraits of the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (left), and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as they march in the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Hatta on March 18
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO)
ON MARCH 15, the bloody and tragic civil war in Syria marked its sixth anniversary.
Half a million people have been killed, one million wounded and 10 million – nearly half the population – have been uprooted and are now refugees.
Occasionally, the world pays lip service, but mostly remains mute and shows its cynicism in face of the atrocities.
All involved parties, from the region and outside, care solely about their interests with little compassion for the human cost.
Though Israel opened a field hospital on its Syrian border and has so far treated 3,000 wounded Syrians, it is no exception.
Israeli policy is non-interventionist, with three exceptions related to its national security interests and defined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and all defense ministers as “red lines.”
One is that the IDF retaliates from air and land, whenever shells and rockets land on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights regardless of whether the Israeli side of the border was targeted intentionally or not.
Another is the establishment of terrorist networks near the Israeli border; attempts to do so have resulted in the assassination of Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah commanders.
The third and most important exception is the occasional bombing, without admission, of convoys carrying and warehouses storing long-range accurate missiles sent from Iran via Syria and destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Since 2013, some 20 such incidents have been recorded by the media based on Syria’s official statements and rare Israeli claims of responsibility.
One such case occurred just after midnight on March 17. In the most serious border incident since the start of the Syrian civil war, an Israeli Arrow defense system intercepted a Syrian missile fired at an IAF fighter jet returning from a mission in northern Syria.
The incident was supposed to have passed without reaction like most of those reported previously.
Israel’s intelligence gathered accurate information which enabled the Israel Air Force (IAF) to target “strategic weapons” or, in other words, accurate long-range missiles.
After completing the mission, while on their way back to Israel, Syria’s anti-aircraft missile defense system was activated. It fired Russian-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), which missed the IAF planes. It was the third time Syrian air defenses tried to shoot at Israeli jets during or after their missions in that country.
Syria’s response forced the IAF to use its Arrow missile defense system to shoot down at least one Syrian SAM. The interception took place over Jordanian air space and the debris fell inside Jordan.
The Arrow system, which was jointly developed with the US, is designed to intercept and destroy surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs), including ballistic ones, and not SAMs.
THE RARE use of the Arrow system spawned rumors and speculation. Some suggested that the Syrians launched an SSM.
Others argued that it was launched by error or that it was a matter of mistaken identification.
Eventually, the IDF refuted all the rumors and told The Jerusalem Report that the Arrow battery radar, code-named Green Pine, identified the flying object as a SAM, not an SSM, headed in the direction of Israel.
Not wishing to take risks, the battery crew made a split-second decision to “kill” the Syrian missile. Defense sources said that the SAM carried a warhead of 200 kg, the heaviest payload fired at Israel since the 1991 Gulf War.
It is now clear that the Arrow missile was upgraded to also destroy SAMs. One can’t rule out the possibility that under such circumstances the incident provided a good opportunity to test the Arrow system in real battle conditions.
Regardless, it was the first time the system was successfully used to shoot down an anti-aircraft missile. But it also created a problem.
Israel, presumably, did not intend to report the air strike, wanting to continue with its ambiguous policy of neither confirming nor denying its actions in Syria.
Such attacks are usually reported by foreign media and official statements from the Syrian army. This time, however, the IDF spokesperson confirmed the attacks in the early morning hours of March 17 because alert systems were activated in the Jordan Valley and Jerusalem area. Residents claimed to have heard and seen the launch.
An IDF senior source told The Report that Israel has no plans to escalate or intensify tension with the Syrian army; but, Israel will continue to operate according to its red lines, working to stop the transfer of weapons, mainly accurate long-range missiles being moved from Iran, through Syria, to Hezbollah.
Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, on the other hand, also have no interest in an escalation, especially with Syria’s civil war raging on with no end in sight.
Because, by default, Israel had to admit it carried out an attack in Syria, Russia, the main sponsor of the Assad regime, had no choice but to officially protest. Hours after the attack, the newly appointed Israeli ambassador to Moscow Gary Koren was summoned to Russia’s Foreign Ministry and reprimanded.
It seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing a double game.
Behind the scenes, he understands Israel’s interests in Russia and its red lines while, publicly, he opposes any Israeli breach of Syrian sovereignty. This issue was a focal point in talks two weeks ago between Netanyahu and Putin in Moscow – their fifth meeting in just 17 months.
The prime minister sought to intensify Putin’s understanding of Israel’s interests in Syria, as well as its red lines. Netanyahu stressed that Israel would not tolerate the continued transfer of weapons to Hezbollah or any attempt by Iran or Hezbollah to send their forces to Israel’s border with Syria in the Golan Heights.
However, it seems from the last incident that even though Putin may understand Israel’s interests, Russia’s influence on Bashar Assad and his army is not absolute.
Nevertheless, the incident showed the explosive potential of the situation on the Israeli-Syrian front.
Sponsored by the Syrian regime and Iran, Hezbollah seeks to open a new front in addition to the Lebanese border. Recent developments in Syria and Iraq may change this reality and force Israel to reconsider its non-interventionist policy.
“What we see occurring in recent months in Syria is of strategic importance for Israel,” Chagai Tzuriel, the new director-general of the Intelligence Ministry, tells The Report.
Tzuriel recently stepped down after 27 years in the Mossad where he served in various capacities, including head of its research department and the intelligence agency’s representative in the US.
While in the Mossad, he realized that the complex reality in Syria is no longer “black and white” but rather “50 shades of gray.”
This is a regional and global reality that can be defined by the term “frenemy” – a combination of both friend and enemy.
The involvement and interests of all parties in Syria result in the players having friendly and hostile encounters at the same time. Russia and the US are global rivals with different agendas in Syria, but at the same time they share a common enemy – Islamic State, which is in the final stages of defeat in Iraq and Syria. The bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia, as well as Iran and Turkey, can be understood within the same “frenemy” framework.
Tzuriel points to the Syrian-Assad paradox.
Already before the civil war, Syria was a country in decline – economically, diplomatically and militarily. Its army, although it possessed a significant chemical weapons arsenal (which has since been dismantled), was no match for the mighty Israeli military and intelligence.
In just a year (from 2007 to 2008), Israel’s air force and intelligence managed to destroy Syria’s nuclear reactor and to assassinate one of its most influential advisers – Gen. Muhammad Suleiman. It also assassinated Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s “defense minister.” At the time, Assad swallowed his pride and didn’t retaliate.
His inaction was considered another indicator of being a weak leader and his public image was one of lacking stamina and charisma.
But a secret psychological profile drawn by Israeli experts portrayed him differently ‒ he was depicted as having a “psychopathic” personality.
His inaction and seeming apathy toward Israel’s brazen actions actually reflected his character: calm, cruel and focused.
These and other traits have now surfaced during the civil war.
Assad showed his cold-bloodedness, cruelty and determination to cling to power at all costs, including the destruction of his own people and the disintegration of the country. Of course, he has achieved it with the help of Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, which are ready to spill blood for the survival of the regime as long it serves their own regional and global interests.
Thus, in a twisted and paradoxical manner, Syria has turned into a source of spreading instability and a major factor influencing local, regional and global events.
It has exported radical Islamic terrorists and refugees to Europe, with the ripple effect influential in Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump. Syria’s export of refugees is also threatening the delicate economic, social and ethnic fabric of its neighbors Jordan and Lebanon.
According to Tzuriel, it is “the biggest strategic threat to Israel” – not Syria, as such, but Syria under the influence of Iran.
Together with its nuclear aspirations, which it has sidelined but never relinquished, Iran’s pursuit for regional hegemony is also a source of concern for Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey.
Tzuriel calls this phenomenon the “Iranian Crescent.”
THAT CRESCENT is moving in two directions: One eastward to establish a land corridor from Iran to Iraq where it has its Shi’ite proxies, through Syria and on to Lebanon, which is already under the grip of Hezbollah, in order to gain a foothold on the Mediterranean. The other is southeast via the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea coast of Yemen and its strategic Bab al-Mandeb Strait controlling the shipping lanes to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Africa.
“Israel has to do everything to prepare itself for such eventualities,” Tzuriel says, adding that he believes “we have the levers, power and influence to stop Iranian expansionism, at least in our direction.”
He points out that to achieve this goal Israel can use and leverage its special and strategic alliance with the US, its good communication channels with Russia and its secret relations with the Sunni nations, which share their concerns about the Iranian crescent.
A few weeks ago, an Iraqi-Shi’ite militia fighting ISIS alongside its military command announced that it would form a new force to “liberate” the Golan Heights from Israel.
“This is a bad omen” emphasizes Tzuriel.
“If Iran and Hezbollah strengthen their position in Syria and stay on its soil, sooner or later they will try to deploy their forces on the Israeli border – which Israel can’t tolerate.”
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at and tweets at yossi_melman