Israel confronted ‘Hezbollah 2’ in Syria, but what’s its end goal? - analysis

For many years, Israel has been seeking to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria dating back to the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

A US soldier oversees members of the Syrian Democratic Forces as they demolish a YPG fortification Syria (photo credit: US ARMY/STAFF SGT. ANDREW GOEDL/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A US soldier oversees members of the Syrian Democratic Forces as they demolish a YPG fortification Syria
(photo credit: US ARMY/STAFF SGT. ANDREW GOEDL/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said this week that Israel prevented the formation of a “Hezbollah 2” in Syria.

For many years, Israel has been seeking to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria, dating back to when the Syrian civil war began in earnest in 2012. This has led to tensions with Israel, especially when Hezbollah sent forces to Syria and when those forces ended up closer to the Golan in 2018.

Now, several years later, Israel is continuing to face Iranian threats in Syria as well as in the wider region. How did this come about and what might the prevention of Hezbollah 2 mean for Israel?

Iran has been an ally of the Syrian regime already before the civil war broke out. Iran also backed Hezbollah for many decades before. Since the 2006 Lebanon War, tensions between Hezbollah and Israel were kept to a relative minimum.

This is not because Hezbollah is less threatening. In fact, Hezbollah has grown quite a bit since 2006, increasing its missile arsenal and its drones and precision-guided missile stocks. It has also flown drones into Israeli airspace and threatened gas platforms located off the Lebanese coast. After the recently signed maritime deal, Hezbollah claimed it got what it wanted from it.

 An Iranian woman holds a Hezbollah flag during a protest to express solidarity with the Palestinian people amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Tehran, Iran May 18, 2021.  (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) An Iranian woman holds a Hezbollah flag during a protest to express solidarity with the Palestinian people amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Tehran, Iran May 18, 2021. (credit: MAJID ASGARIPOUR/WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

Iran, meanwhile, increased its role in Syria. When Russia intervened in Syria in 2015, the US also began supporting anti-ISIS forces in the form of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Eventually, the US also established a garrison at Tanf in Syria, an isolated forlorn outpost near the Jordan-Syria-Iraq border. This was supposed to help some Syrian opposition fighters.

Recent reports have emerged of a Syrian rebel group that killed an ISIS commander in Dara’a in southern Syria. It’s not clear if those groups are linked to Tanf or other Free Syrian Army elements. What matters is that this happened in southern Syria – where Hezbollah is present.

Hezbollah intervened in Syria back in 2012. Its forces were able to penetrate into southern Syria when the Syrian rebel forces collapsed in 2018, threatening Israel from the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. In August 2019, Israel struck a Hezbollah drone unit near the Golan.

By this time, Israel had been carrying out its “war between the wars” strategy mainly through a series of airstrikes on Iranian targets, harming Iran’s ability to influence the area. Iran sought to move drones and air defenses to Syria while it also established warehouses at airfields where it moves munitions, even building a base called Imam Ali on the border with Iraq near Albukamal.

Syrian regime media often blame Israel for attacks in Syria. On November 8, for instance, an airstrike allegedly hit a truck on the Iran-Iraq border. This border crossing is important for Iran because it can move missiles and other goods to Syria and to Hezbollah via the crossing.

In another incident, an IRGC officer named Davoud Jafari was killed. Iran blamed Israel. Jafari was apparently an IRGC military adviser in Syria who was also linked to Iran’s aerospace and drone program.

What is the aim of the 'war between wars'?

THE OVERALL TRAJECTORY of the “war between the wars” campaign and the apparent attempt to prevent an emergence of Hezbollah 2 is unclear. Iran has proxies in Syria and influence and has established bases, enabling it to move weapons to Syria. It also exploits Iraq for the same purpose – it has numerous pro-Iran militias in Iraq, called the Hashd al-Shaabi.

Now, Iran is threatening Israel directly – with drones. The US-led coalition shot down Iranian drones heading to Israel earlier this year. Also, Iran used a drone flown from Chabahar to target a ship in the Gulf of Oman last month. It also uses proxy groups in Syria to target US forces in the east.

This means that the campaign to prevent some kind of Hezbollah 2 faces an uphill battle. Iran will continue to try to move forces and threats to Syria. It will exploit the weakness of the Syrian regime to move weapons and proxies.

For instance, Turkey is currently threatening an invasion of Syria, which the US has opposed, but Ankara is considering new ties with Damascus and Turkey works with Russia to coordinate activities. If Ankara invades, this will threaten the US-backed SDF, and it could cause instability, as well as meaning that Russia, the Syrian regime and Turkey will move forces into areas along the northern border.

In turn, Iran could exploit the chaos to target US forces, which may cause the US to withdraw personnel, which means that ISIS will renew its attacks. All of this could leave an opening to Iran because a Turkish invasion will lead to the Syrian regime and Russia concentrating in the north to settle a deal with Turkey, while extremist groups in Idlib may heat things up as well.

Whenever there is a vacuum in power, Iran exploits the vacuum to move forces.

Hezbollah has massively increased its power in the last decade and a half. It now has a near-stranglehold on Lebanese politics as well as the economy. It is so powerful that to compare it to the Hezbollah of 1999 or 2005 would not be a fair comparison.

In a sense, Hezbollah has already become Hezbollah 2 and it would like to establish Hezbollah 3 in Syria, while it grooms another Hezbollah in Iraq and in Yemen. All of these forces have gained a lot of weapons and experience in the last several years. They have increased the range of their weapons and pose a greater threat to Israel and the region. Trying to keep them from fully swallowing part of Syria, like an anaconda eats its prey, is a major challenge.

Considering the size of the challenge it is unclear what the end goal of the “war between the wars” campaign will be. Is there a way out of the Syrian cycle, a kind of feedback loop where Israel confronts the entrenchment of Iran, so that it can confront the entrenchment of Iran? Having gotten involved in this need to stop the entrenchment, it’s unclear where this goes or ends up.

Is there a scenario where the Syrian regime will see the Iran role as unhelpful? Considering Russia’s focus on Ukraine, Turkey planning a new invasion and the US in a precarious position in eastern Syria, it appears that the problem of Hezbollah 2 will be with us for a while.