Is Israel’s new not-so-secret strategy against Iran a winner?

INTELLIGENCE AFFAIRS: Is it just increasing the “mowing the grass” policy by making a larger lawnmower? Isn’t this just more “whack-a-mole” in Syria?

 A HEAVY MACHINE operates at the tarmac of the damaged Damascus International Airport, on Tuesday.  (photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
A HEAVY MACHINE operates at the tarmac of the damaged Damascus International Airport, on Tuesday.
(photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Israel is increasing its pressure on Iran. That is an official policy now, as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel would go after the head of the Iranian “octopus,” as opposed to just fighting the tentacles. Yet Israel is still fighting the tentacles.

Airstrikes on Damascus International Airport, which Syrian media blamed on Israel, were recently carried out. But is this a successful and winning strategy, or is it more of the same? Is it just increasing the “mowing the grass” policy by making a larger lawnmower? Isn’t this just more “whack-a-mole” in Syria?

Syria’s regime is already repairing the damaged tarmacs at the airport. This means that Syria is willing to go back to normal. But the regime is not retaliating. In essence, that means that Syria is still an open zone for Israeli strikes.

Besides the Syria policy, part of the “war between the wars” campaign, Israel is also blamed for increasing attacks inside Iran. These have included foreign reports alleging Israel assassinated several IRGC officers in the last month and a half. This includes IRGC officers allegedly involved in drone programs and also involved in plots against Israelis and Jews abroad. The sheer number of attacks that have been revealed, either in Iranian media or foreign reports, point to a major increase of pressure on the IRGC.

  Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Tanach learning track meeting at Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, May 31, 2022. (credit: NOAM RIVKIN-PANTON/FLASH90) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Tanach learning track meeting at Ben-Gurion House in Tel Aviv, May 31, 2022. (credit: NOAM RIVKIN-PANTON/FLASH90)

Is this the “head” of the octopus strategy coming into view?

Let’s recall that the IRGC increased its involvement in Syria after the Syrian civil war began in 2011. It set up shop and entrenched, initially to fight the Syrian rebels and help prop up the Syrian regime. After Russia also intervened in Syria in 2015, it became clear the regime would win. The IRGC then shifted to begin more work setting up Hezbollah and Iranian proxies throughout Syria. Iran moved weapons and technology to Hezbollah and brought drones to Syria. It also tried to bring air defenses.

Israel rapidly increased airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, eventually striking thousands of targets. This increase coincided with the Syrian regime moving its forces back to the Golan border in 2018. With the Syrian rebels mostly defeated, or forced to go to northern Syria to hide near Turkey’s border, the Syrian regime could put Iranian entrenchment on steroids. Israel counteracted that by vowing to stop the entrenchment.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was distracted by the Iran deal issue in 2015. He also coordinated with Russia so Israel had freedom of action in Syria. In addition, the US under the Trump administration began to back Israeli operations in Syria. But Netanyahu never wanted a wider conflict in Syria. He did prepare the IDF for a multifront war, and the IDF began its new Momentum plan to use technology to prepare for a war of rapid maneuver against Iranian proxies on multiple fronts.

However, Netanyahu’s distraction with the Iran deal was largely an illusion. His governments didn’t provide a budget for refueling tankers and new helicopters that Israel needs to confront Iran.

Israel’s investments in other technology did continue. Israel now has dozens of F-35s and also is working on laser air defenses.

The overall picture is that Israel faces challenges, in any kind of long-range war with Iran or its proxies, that may be far from Israel’s borders. For instance, Iran has proxies in Iraq and areas like Deir al-Zor. That means that the conflict between the wars, which mostly takes place in Syria, is one that is waged from the air primarily.

The shadow conflict, which may take place elsewhere, with Iran threatening Israelis in places like Turkey or even Cyprus, while Israel is accused of assassinations in Iran, is by necessity a smaller conflict and more complex.

These kinds of operations don’t win wars. These kinds of operations are clandestine, and although we may hear about them via reports in Western media or Iranian and regional media, it’s not clear how they will be a game changer. Iran is used to having “martyrs.” It has lost many key people, such as Imad Mughniyeh and Qasem Soleimani. Both of those men were key to the Iran nexus in the region. But their loss didn’t make Iran “lose” any kind of war.

LET’S REVIEW some of the Iran tensions in the past months. In March Israel said it had intercepted Iranian drones using F-35s. Reports also said Iran had tried once again to move air defenses to Syria. On March 7 there was an alleged Israeli airstrike in Damascus, according to foreign reports. On March 12 Iran carried out a ballistic missile strike on Erbil in northern Iraq.

Iran then spread rumors it had struck a house used by “Mossad.”

“I do worry about these exchanges between Iran and Israel because many times our forces are at risk, whether in Iraq or in Syria,” CENTCOM chief Gen. Frank McKenzie said on March 18.

Three days later reports said that two Iranian drones had been shot down over Iraq in February.

In April Iranian militias in Iraq targeted a Turkish base in Iraq. Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel would continue to operate in Syria. This came as Russia began a war against Ukraine, and some worried that the conflict in Ukraine might affect Israel’s operations. In fact, some have argued Iran may gain more power in Syria, if Russia shifts focus to Ukraine.

On April 6 pro-Iran militias in Syria shelled a US base, according to reports. Other reports said Iranian militias had carried out 29 attacks on the US in Iraq and Syria since October 2021. In late April Iranian militias again targeted a Turkish base in Iraq. On April 26 airstrikes were reported in Damascus.

When we look at May we can see that Iran’s actions continued in Iraq and Syria, often targeting the US, Turkey or the Kurds. That means that these are one-sided conflicts. Iran suffers loses in and around Damascus and also inside Iran, but it strikes others. This may be due to the fact Iran is afraid of escalating against Israel, but it wants to roll back any Western or NATO influence in Iraq and Syria.

On May 11 an airstrike was reported near Quneitra, and another was reported near Masyaf on May 15. Israel’s Channel 13 said that for the first time since Israel began strikes in Syria, a Russian S-300 was used against an airstrike. Gantz, in a speech on May 17, warned about Iran’s nuclear and drone program.

“Israel will continue to block the transfer and production of Iranian precision weapons in Syria in order to protect its citizens,” he said.

“Israel will continue to block the transfer and production of Iranian precision weapons in Syria in order to protect its citizens.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz

Then the IDF said a Hezbollah drone penetrated Israeli airspace on May 16-17. Israel initiated a massive preplanned drill called Chariots of Fire around the same time. On May 22 an IRGC colonel was assassinated in Iran. Days later, Iran seized two Greek ships, claiming to have retaliated for the US seizing of Iranian oil.

By early June tensions with Iran rose further, including an IAEA Board of Governor’s report slamming Iran. More Iranian IRGC members died in mysterious circumstances in the first two weeks of June. That brings us to where we are now.

It remains to be seen whether the rhetoric from Jerusalem is really a game changer. Iran doesn’t appear to be rolling back its influence. On the contrary, it has grown its influence over the last several years. Israel appears to only be slowing down Iran. Whether the new strategy might pressure Iran to make a mistake in retaliation is unclear, but the overall goal of Iran is influence over the region, and it continues to make inroads.