Security and Defense: Israel closely eying the Syrian situation

Senior defense sources discuss the implications of recent losses suffered by the Assad regime.

Members of the Kfir Infantry Brigade on combat training maneuvers in the Golan Heights recently (photo credit: IDF SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Members of the Kfir Infantry Brigade on combat training maneuvers in the Golan Heights recently
In recent weeks, the Assad regime has absorbed a series of losses from an assortment of rebel groups in Syria, leading some observers to wonder if, once again, the Alawite leadership might finally collapse.
President Bashar Assad’s implacable allies, Iran and Hezbollah, have not sat on the sidelines waiting to see what happens, instead continuing to inject cash, weapons, military advisers and in Hezbollah’s case, significant amounts of ground forces, to assist the Assad forces in their quest to take back lands lost to rebels.
Tehran has kept up – and likely increased – the presence of its elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) personnel, while bringing in Shi’ite militias from abroad to support the war effort.
The Damascus regime controls less than half of Syria, and the country no longer exists in any formal, coherent sense. Israel watches events closely, trying not to intervene – except when, according to international media reports, the Iranian axis tries to exploit the situation to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, leading to alleged Israeli air strikes to stop the arms proliferation.
Now, in the Qalamoun Mountains just east of Lebanon, where according to international reports the Israel Air Force launched a series of powerful air strikes last month on military installations housing Scud missiles earmarked for transfer to Hezbollah, the yellow flags of the Shi’ite Lebanese organizations fly.
Hezbollah launched a large counter- offensive against the Sunni rebels, pushing them away from the Lebanese border, and engaging in a fight to the death against al-Nusra Front, Islamic State and the Free Syrian Army.
The key question for Jerusalem is how these developments will affect its security, and strategic position.
According to sources in the defense establishment, for now, the battles raging in the mountains of Qalamoun and in southern Syria – where rebels have also made gains – are not having an immediate impact on Israel.
A source from the IDF’s Northern Command told The Jerusalem Post, “It is not influencing us, we are not part of it. There is no change in our operations.
The fighting in Syria is not on the border fence. To our east we see some stray fire sometimes, but there is no real change.”
Rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, are in control of most of the border region with Israel, from New Quneitra to the town of al-Khader, the source said. The Assad regime and Hezbollah maintain control in al-Khader, which borders the northernmost point of the Golan Heights, and defend it against rebel assault.
But other IDF sources contended it was probably only a matter of time before the border becomes more active.
“In the meantime, this is far away.
We have changed our border fence, our operational concept and our intelligence [techniques]. This means we have good readiness. The border could experience more friction, and the operational reality might change in the future,” another security source said.
Yet looking at the broader picture, the events unfolding across Syria have already had an influence on Israel, senior defense observers argued.
Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaacov Amidror, of the Begin-Sadat Institute for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University and former head of the National Security Council, told the Post this week that “it all depends on how it ends. Although the current situation makes things harder for Hezbollah, which must be more careful with regards to us, if its offensive leaves Assad in control then this is a price that is worth paying for Hezbollah, to safeguard its strategic rear in Syria – and leave it dependent on Hezbollah.”
V.-Adm. (res.) Eliezer Marom, who served as commander of the Israel Navy between 2007 and 2011, stated, “Everything that happens around us has a direct and indirect influence on Israel; this applies to events unfolding in Syria now. Hezbollah has intervened very, very intensively in Syria.
The leadership of Hezbollah, and the Iranians, understand they are entangled – they don’t have enough forces to fight against Israel.”
Marom added, “This is a serious statement, and it has to be proven.”
Referring to alleged Israeli strikes on Syrian bases and weapons caches bound for Lebanon in late April, and the small-scale, failed attempt by Hezbollah and Iran to respond by planting bombs on the Syria-Israel border, Marom said, “Let’s look at recent events in the north. We can see that ultimately, Hezbollah is trying not to escalate things, despite attacks that occurred in Qalamoun, which were very serious. Nevertheless, the response was very minor.”
The former navy chief compared those incidents to Hezbollah’s response back in January to an alleged IAF strike on a convoy of senior IRGC and Hezbollah operatives near Quneitra.
In Hezbollah’s January attack, a volley of Kornet missiles struck an IDF convoy, killing two IDF soldiers.
“Here, Hezbollah responded with different force. This means that Hezbollah continues to sink deeper in the battles of Syria, and understands its position. It is very careful in terms of opening a new front. Hence, do Syrian events influence Israel? Certainly,” he maintained.
On the other hand, Marom argued, current developments hold risks for Israel that could be a cause for concern. “The Syrian Assad regime is getting increasingly dependent on Hezbollah and Iran,” he said. “This means that tomorrow morning, when we want to deter Assad, this could become harder to achieve. Because Assad today is, more or less, in the best-case scenario, carrying out the wishes of Iran and Hezbollah.
He essentially controls a few quarters in Damascus.
“This is Assad’s position. He is fully dependent on Iranian and Hezbollah assistance. If that assistance fails to arrive, there won’t be an Assad.”
The Syrian president’s vulnerability is bad for Iran, and for Hezbollah, yet it also means that Assad is in no position to raise objections to instructions and directives from Tehran. “In the past, he had a stance, and he would be heard.
He would not be confrontational, but he’d raise issues,” Marom noted.
Theoretically, that could mean that in the past, Assad may have responded to an Iranian command to deliver Scud missiles or GPS-guided precision longrange rockets to Hezbollah with a request to delay the action, or to change the kind of weapon for transfer.
“I think that today, his room for maneuver is very low. I don’t want to say that he is under full Iranian command, but he is really not far for from that,” Marom said.
If Assad were to reject an Iranian order to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, Iranian assistance would cease. “In that kind of situation, Assad is finished.”
The ex-navy chief linked events in Syria to broader, regional Iranian maneuvers.
“Iran is working with sophistication, creating centers of conflict and acting by proxies. It has done so for a long time here, in Lebanon and Syria... and in Yemen, where it is threatening Saudi Arabia via the Houthis.
“Eastern Saudi Arabia is home to a Shi’ite community, and there is oil there. If Saudi Arabia falls – and it is not a superpower – we could have a problem with Egypt, which is supported economically by the Saudis. Iran is a central player. I’m not sure the Americans are paying attention to this issue,” he said.
Yoram Schweitzer, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low-Intensity Conflict at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, averred, “I don’t think this has special significance,” referring to recent battles in Syria.
Looking ahead at the possible outcomes, Schweitzer stated, “Either Assad falls, and this is preferred by many... or the regime survives, but the rebels, who we don’t know, capture more areas and the sides continue to weaken each other.
“At this stage, I do not see dramatic changes. There is no decisiveness [on the battlefields]; no side is disappearing. We don’t have to jump to conclusions every time Assad experiences losses, and say that he is about to fall.”
Hezbollah has fought in the Qalamoun region before, he continued, and the fact that it is sunk in the Syrian mud is not something Israel has to be “sad about.”
The frequent shifts in Syria mean that “it is hard to be impressed” by one development or another, Schweitzer said. “I don’t see a change in the situation.”
He also cast doubt on the widely echoed view that Iran has come to control four Arab capitals, including Damascus. “I think that it is exaggerated. The Iranians are involved in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, but on the other side, we can see Iran sinking into these areas. The presence of a military in a foreign country can be costly,” he said.
“Iraqi Shi’ites are far from being fully controlled by Iran. There is opposition [to Iranian control] in Syria, too; Iran cannot expect to fully control the [regime] of Syria, not to mention the Sunni jihadists.
Hezbollah is paying a price. This is not good news for them.”
Marom added, however, that while tactically, the Iranian axis is deeply entangled in regional conflict, strategically, Tehran’s maneuvers are coherent and based on long-term calculations.
“The Iranians have a strategic view that is very clear. We cannot look at it tactically.
Over the long run, their plan is working, unfortunately.”