What is Israel's endgame in attacking Syria?

Israel will ensure no peace and quiet for Syria if Iran retains its military presence, a look at the IDF's actions through four fundamental operational goals.

 A SYRIAN MAN adjusts a chair near a poster depicting Syria’s President Bashar Assad, in Mleiha, earlier this year.  (photo credit: FIRAS MAKDESI/REUTERS)
A SYRIAN MAN adjusts a chair near a poster depicting Syria’s President Bashar Assad, in Mleiha, earlier this year.

It has become routine. Reports, usually unconfirmed, of Israeli strikes against targets in Syria have become a regular occurrence. Just last week the Syrian state-run news agency SANA announced that Israeli warplanes flying across the Golan carried out a raid in the vicinity of Damascus International Airport, apparently after the arrival of a military cargo flight from Iran.

That attack followed a purported December 7 Israel Air Force strike on munition depots in the Syrian port of Latakia, where it was assumed that Israel was acting to prevent the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Also last week: The Washington Post reported that the June 8 Israeli airstrikes near Homs and Damascus were designed to stop a “nascent attempt by Syria to restart its production of deadly nerve agents” and were guided by intelligence that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime was reconstituting its chemical weapons program, in violation of Syria’s 2014 commitment to then-US president Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In contrast to this reality, as the population of the Israeli Golan will tell you, the Israeli-Syrian border was once Israel’s quietest.

In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger launched intensive shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Syria. The negotiations with the Egyptians proved relatively painless, the first disengagement agreement with Egypt (Sinai 1) signed by January 1974. Not so the agreement with Hafez Assad, which proved far more difficult, demanding Kissinger utilize all his acclaimed negotiating skills. Through much bluff, brinkmanship and “bladder diplomacy,” the Israel-Syria Disengagement Agreement was finally concluded in May 1974.

Smoke rises from a fire in a container storage area, after Syrian state media reported an Israeli air strike on the port of Latakia on December 7. (credit: SANA/REUTERS)Smoke rises from a fire in a container storage area, after Syrian state media reported an Israeli air strike on the port of Latakia on December 7. (credit: SANA/REUTERS)

Ba’athist Syria continued to be Israel’s sworn enemy, with Damascus remaining “the beating heart of Arabism,” but for close to half a century after the signing of Kissinger’s agreement an uneasy tranquility prevailed on the purple line across the Golan.

Even in situations when the Israeli and Syrian militaries exchanged deadly blows, as was the case during the First Lebanon War of 1982, neither side had an interest in breaching the tense stability on the Golan frontier. Likewise, the 2007 Israeli attack that destroyed Syria’s clandestine Deir ez-Zur nuclear reactor did not lead to a military escalation.

During my own military service on the Golan in the early 1980s, I remember Austrian inspectors from the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force visiting our position to verify that the IDF was complying with the force limitations outlined in the 1974 Disengagement Agreement.

Today, while both Jerusalem and Damascus remain formally committed to that deal, the realities have moved on. The eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and especially the expanding presence of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria since 2013, dictated changes to Israel’s behavior.

Reports issued by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) have documented that so far this year Israel has attacked in Syria on 28 separate occasions. According to SOHR, IDF “aerial and rocket” strikes in 2021 have hit some 70 targets, including attacks on headquarters, warehouses and military installations, and have killed more than 120 people.

These IDF actions in Syria can be seen as furthering four fundamental operational goals.

First, Israel is intent on thwarting the transfer of Iranian weapons via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel especially seeks to avert the passage of qualitative weapons that could be seen as game changers, negatively upsetting the Israel-Hezbollah balance.

Second, Israel obviously has enhanced concerns about developments in southern Syria, in the territory proximate to the common frontier. Accordingly, the IDF prevents the building of Hezbollah-Iranian terrorist capabilities on the Syrian Golan and adjacent areas. What might ostensibly be tolerated in northern Syria is intolerable when closer.

Third, Israel takes preemptive action to prevent Syria from developing non-conventional military capabilities. Israel did so in the past against the regime’s illicit nuclear program, and, according to The Washington Post, more recently in response to the attempt to reestablish a chemical arsenal.

Finally, Israel refuses to acquiesce in Iran’s attempt to turn Syria into its military satellite, a forward position for Tehran’s hostile designs against the Jewish state. Israel sees Iran’s military buildup as an illegitimate provocation and strikes against it in order to physically degrade Iranian capabilities.

But understanding Israeli policy in Syria requires more than a purely military explanation.

National-security specialists are familiar with the 19th century Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz who famously coined the axiom that “war is a continuation of politics by other means,” and Israel’s military operations in Syria are indeed designed to send realpolitik messages to both the Islamic Republic and the Syrian regime.

Israel wants Iran to understand that as long as its forces remain in Syria, they will face IDF attacks, as will Hezbollah and other allied militias. Iranian personnel will be hit, their equipment demolished and their installations destroyed. Israel will keep up the pressure through never-ending attrition, and in so doing, prevent Tehran from accomplishing its planned military expansion.

Yet not only will Israel deny Iran its strategic goals, Iran’s continued involvement in Syria will also demand a burgeoning cost in blood and treasure, a price Tehran will increasingly incur until it understands the folly of its deployment and takes the inevitable decision to disengage.

The Israeli message to Syrian President Bashar Assad is equally stark. Despite the predictions of many, Syria’s dictator prevailed in the civil war. But, despite coming out on top of that horrific struggle, he will not be able to enjoy the “fruits of victory” with there being no peace and quiet for Syria if Iran retains its military presence. Israel will see to that.

Moreover, with ongoing violence, Assad’s war-torn country will be unable to enlist the international financial support for much-needed reconstruction, the Arab world’s generosity is already limited by Syria’s military association with the Islamic Republic.

While the current president’s father, Hafez Assad, knew how to manipulate ties with Iran and Hezbollah to advance Syria’s interests, today it is they who exploit Syria to advance theirs. Like in Iraq, Iran is building autonomous military, social and religious structures that will ultimately challenge the regime’s monopoly on power. Did Bashar Assad survive the civil war only to see these “friends” usurp his authority?

Here’s a cheeky suggestion for Syria’s president: Organize a victory party in Damascus. Have the Iranians and Hezbollah parade through the capital in their finest uniforms. Thank them for their efforts in support of your regime, award them medals for a mission successfully accomplished, and then, send them home.

The writer, formerly an advisor to the prime minister, is a senior visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @AmbassadorMarkRegev on Facebook.