Israel’s Syria policy could be coming to new crossroads - analysis

The UAE foreign minister recently met with Bashar Assad, and the region now sees Syria as possibly being welcomed back into the fold by the Gulf states, Egypt and some other countries.

 Israeli soldiers from the Armored Corps seen near the Syrian border in the northern Golan Heights, October 17, 2021. (photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)
Israeli soldiers from the Armored Corps seen near the Syrian border in the northern Golan Heights, October 17, 2021.
(photo credit: MICHAEL GILADI/FLASH90)

Israel has been closely watching changes in the region and Syria may be a key to understanding some of the choices that now face Israel, its partners in the US and the region, as well as Iran and Russia. What this means is that a new phase may be approaching.

To understand the new possibilities and challenges, it is worth considering several issues. First of all, Israel has been carrying on what is called a “campaign between the wars” – an attempt to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

In August 2017, reports said that Israel had struck arms convoys on their way to Hezbollah around 100 times. By January 2019, outgoing IDF chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot said that Israel had struck Iranian targets in Syria thousands of times. These are the parameters of the campaign to prevent Iranian entrenchment. US support for Israel’s airstrikes and campaign increased during the Trump administration.

In the report released by the lead inspector general of the United States covering Operation Inherent Resolve from July to October 2019, the US noted the airstrikes and implications.

“US CENTCOM [Central Command] assessed that Iranian backed forces in Syria might look to target US military personnel or its partner forces in Syria, if they view the US as complicit in Israeli strikes on its forces in Syria,” the report said.

SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar Assad casts his vote in the country’s presidential election in May. (credit: SANA/REUTERS)SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar Assad casts his vote in the country’s presidential election in May. (credit: SANA/REUTERS)

The report looks at the US role in Iraq and Syria in fighting ISIS. However, Washington had shifted its strategy to get Iran to leave Syria in 2018 and 2019. Iran-US tensions rose in 2019 in Iraq, and in 2020, America killed Qasem Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force commander.

THE US report noted that, “according to media reports, suspected Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-aligned militia bases in Iraq in July and August elicited a rebuke from Iraqi parliamentarians and resulted in Iraqi government-imposed air restrictions on all foreign aircraft flying over Iraqi airspace, including Coalition aircraft.”

The US noted that “Iran’s presence in Syria supports Iran’s strategic objective of securing the regime from external threats. CJTF-OIR [the US anti-ISIS Coalition] said that Iran seeks to have a dominant position in the region, particularly in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and that Iran’s strategic goals in a post-conflict Syria include retaining access to Hezbollah in Lebanon, maintaining the ability to strike Israel from Syrian territory, maintaining a military presence and military influence in Syria, and recouping investment through securing economic and security contracts in Syria.”

Why does this matter? On Friday, a report at The New York Times claimed that an Iranian attack on the US Tanf Garrison in Syria was retaliation for Israeli airstrikes. “The drone attack, which caused no casualties, would be the first time Iran has directed a military strike against the United States in response to an attack by Israel, an escalation of Iran’s shadow war with Israel that poses new dangers to US forces in the Middle East,” the report said.

“Five so-called suicide drones were launched at the American base at Al Tanf on October 20 in what the US Central Command called a ‘deliberate and coordinated’ attack. Only two detonated on impact, but they were loaded with ball bearings and shrapnel with a ‘clear intent to kill,’ a senior US military official said,” according to the Times.

It is believed, according to the report, that “Iran may have believed that the drone strike would be seen as the initiative of militias rather than Iran. American officials said the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Syria, Javad Ghaffari, is an aggressive supporter of using military force to oust American troops from Iraq and Syria.”

BUT SOMETHING else is happening in Syria. The UAE foreign minister recently met with Bashar Assad, the Syrian regime leader. This was symbolic and important, and the region now sees Syria as possibly being welcomed back into the fold by the Gulf states, Egypt and some other countries. This would change 10 years of policy.

Although Turkey and Qatar are not on board, a wider regional consensus could be forming. Meanwhile, the US is talking to Iran about a new nuclear deal. China and Russia want that deal to happen.

Ron Ben-Yashai, writing at Ynet, noted that “Israel also believes that in order to get rid of the Iranian presence near its border, or at least to reduce it, some indirect moves to help Assad must be made, so that he can spread his rule over all of Syria.

“There is even a political effort to recruit Washington to help Assad rebuild his country, so that the US will be some kind of a counterbalance to Russian influence in the region,” he wrote.

The analysis here, based on the Israeli military's annual assessment, notes that there has been a decrease in threats in northern Israel. Iran’s “military establishment in Syria was halted,” the report claims. Hezbollah and pro-Iran militias were slowed down. There is analysis at Haaretz arguing that Arab countries opening up to the Assad regime could be good for Israel as well.

Reports emerged over the last week that an IRGC commander was removed in Syria at the request of Assad. IRGC Quds Force commander in Syria Mustafa Javad Ghaffari had supposedly been excluded for almost causing a war because of an attack on the US garrison.

This was “a major breach of Syrian sovereignty at all levels,” according to AlHadath, a Saudi television network. That could just be messaging rather than necessarily reflecting a major change in Iran’s footprint in Syria. The message is that the Assad regime can do more in Syria to rein in Iran. This contrasts with the assessment that the attack on Tanf was retaliation for Israel’s actions.

WE NEED to pause and unpack these narratives. The first report is that Iran chose to attack a US garrison in Syria to get back at Israel. This was supposedly because it feared attacking the Jewish state directly, but believed it could use plausible deniability to attack the US. The second report claims that the Syrian regime was able to get the Iranian commander who plotted the attack to be removed.

So the message is not just about the Syrian regime's power and Iran's reduced power, but also a quiet message that somehow the Syrian regime can prevent attacks on the US and Israel because the ones on the US garrison were reputed to be related to Iran wanting to strike the US in response to an Israeli action.

Whether any of this actually happened is unclear. What is clear is that reports and officials want to present this message, even if there are contrasting narratives. What matters at the end of the day is that the overall trend of events in Syria is shifting.

The messaging alone may be shifting or there may be an actual shift, but when it comes to perceptions and the Middle East, those perceptions also matter. That means the regime wants to be portrayed as rolling back Iran but that Tehran wants to strike the US in Iraq and Syria.

It is also known that an Iranian drone was flown into Israeli airspace from Iraq in May during the Israel-Hamas conflict. That means pro-Iranian groups in Iraq can still threaten Israel. But the main issue overall is that the situation in Syria may be shifting.