Syria – the beginning of the end?

The Shi’ite axis and security implications for Israel.

PEOPLE TOSS rose petals as Hezbollah members stand near the coffin of top Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in an attack in Syria last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
PEOPLE TOSS rose petals as Hezbollah members stand near the coffin of top Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in an attack in Syria last year
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Thursday, March 16, Israel for the first time intercepted a missile fired from Syria toward Israeli territory using the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system.
The missile was fired following Israel’s attack of a of strategic weapon intended for Hezbollah. This is the first time Israel clearly and specifically acknowledged such an attack, although in recent years various reports have been made regarding approximately 20 such attacks within Syrian territory.
The Syrians, for their part, claimed that this had been anti-aircraft fire aimed at Israeli aircraft; they also tried to assert that they had successfully hit them. The IDF, for its part, made it clear that no Israeli aircraft were in danger at any stage, but that the intercepted missile was carrying about 200 kg. of explosives and was likely to endanger Israeli civilians.
Missile debris landed in Jordan and alarms were sounded in the southern environs of Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley.
After the incident, Israel’s ambassador to Russia was summoned for a clarification meeting.
There is much more concealed than apparent regarding this incident, and it seems neither of the parties wishes to reveal exactly what happened. However, all sides took advantage of the occasion to convey messages of deterrence. The Israeli generals’ remarks reflected Israel’s policy in recent years, which is to abstain from intervening in the war in Syria but to stringently protect the state’s red lines. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman gave this explanation after the attack: “We have no interest to intervene in the civil war in Syria, neither for nor against Assad. We have no interest in getting involved with the Russians... yet, any time we detect an attempt to smuggle in tie-breaker weapons, we shall act in order to thwart it. On this issue there will be no compromise. The security of Israel comes above all.”
Liberman added that “the next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our airplanes, we will destroy them without thinking twice.”
For its part, Syria, backed by Russia, is trying to formulate new rules of engagement with regard to Israeli attacks on its territory. Syrian President Bashar Assad, in an interview with a Russian television network, stated: “Protecting our border is our right and our obligation. There is no question about it.” He added that since the Israeli attacks constitute a violation of international law, Russia can serve a role in preventing them in the future.
It should be emphasized that this is the second incident in which Syria opened fire on Israel Air Force jets in Syrian skies. The first was in September 2016. However, this latest incident is much more serious, because this time the Syrian attack put Israeli civilians at risk and forced Israel to respond in a manner that did not allow it to hide its involvement in the incident.
This incident very clearly demonstrates the status change on Israel’s northern border in recent months.
Since the fall of Aleppo, the Shi’ite side appears to be winning (even though the rebels groups had some successes in past few days). This leads to an increase in the self-confidence of the Shi’ite axis, which is enjoying substantial Russian backing. This is expressed not only in Syria’s new policy toward Israel, but also in the processes going on in Lebanon and Hezbollah, the latter being the most powerful Shi’ite force in the region.
In a series of statements for the media before and during his visit to Egypt, Lebanon’s new president, Michel Aoun, brought to an end the national dialog in Lebanon and any previous demands to disarm Hezbollah.
Aoun said: “As long as the Lebanese Army doesn’t have enough strength to deal with Israel, we feel that these weapons must exist, because they complete the military operations. They do not contradict them.”
Even though these statements were criticized in Lebanon, they prove that from the time that Aoun was appointed president and Sa’ad Hariri prime minister, Hezbollah has been running Lebanon behind the scenes. The terrorist organization has managed to “buy” its way to power by turning its opponents into allies step by step. Above all, this is proof that Hezbollah is actually emerging from the war in Syria stronger than ever.
This last statement is not self-evident.
There is a debate among scholars regarding Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon. Some claim that as its involvement in the Syrian civil war decreases, the organization is experiencing a crisis, the first signs of which can already be seen. First, the organization lost many fighters and commanders during its combat in Syria. The figures are not clear, but the number killed ranges from 1,100-1,600. A post on a Facebook page reads: “1,600 Hezbollah fighters were killed in Syria, more than were killed throughout all the years of conflict with Israel.” This reflects the condemnation coming out of Lebanon regarding Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria over the loss of Lebanese youth in protecting Syria, criticism heard even from Hezbollah’s founder, Subhi a-Tufayli.
Secondly, there is a dispute within Hezbollah about whether to stay in or withdraw from Syria after the cessation of fighting. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been identified as leading those who want to remain in Syria, in accordance with Iranian directives, and video clips of Hezbollah soldiers making it clear that they “have nothing to do with Bashar” and are not interested in giving up any conquered areas to him are being posted on the Internet. It has also been reported that there has been some significant change of personnel at the top of the organization’s command levels as a result of this stance.
These tensions are reflected on the battlefield between Hezbollah and the Syrians. While Hezbollah and the Iranians behaved as if they own Syria, the Syrian regime decided to put them in their place, and in June 2016 the Syrian Air Force struck a Hezbollah post. According to reports, dozens of fighters were wounded.
Evidence of the social and economic difficulties the organization is suffering can be seen by the resumption of its donation campaigns.
Video clips appealing to the public to donate funds to Hezbollah, under the banner “Equip the Jihadist,” are trying to give the message that Hezbollah is fighting for all the Lebanese. Messages are being posted from Druse, Christian, Shi’ite and Sunni clerics exalting the “Islamic national resistance that is sacrificing martyrs for the defense of all religions.”
However, it is clear that this campaign is meant to glorify Hezbollah and present it as fighting for the benefit of the Lebanese. As such, the campaign contributes to the feeling of significance of the fighters and supporters, backed as they are by religious and military messages, specifically at a time when there are doubts about the organization’s next military goal.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to assess the extent of Shi’ite opposition to Hezbollah. As long as there is no visible manifestation in the field, meaning the removal of rockets from civilian houses, the development of an alternative leadership on the national level and a mass public demand to resume the national dialogue and disarm the organization – as long as these do not happen the current criticism against the organization does not impair its power.
Hezbollah is successfully converting its increasing political power into psychological warfare against Israel, and announces, over and over again, its ability to damage the strategic infrastructures deep within the territory of the “Zionist entity.”
Within this Shi’ite axis, it is, surprisingly, Iran that finds itself in the most complex position. On March 7, the commanders in chief of the Russian, American and Turkish armies met in Antalya to discuss security aspects connected to Iraq and Syria.
Iran stood out in its absence. The Iranian media did not conceal Tehran’s concern at this coordination and the possibility that it would “terminate Iran’s role in the Syrian arena.”
On one hand, Iran succeeded setting up a good number of Shi’ite militias in Iraq and Syria, even paying the price of 500 Iranian soldiers killed in action. Iran, therefore, was supposed to be the winner, reaping the fruits of victory. On the other hand, however, Iran finds itself in a sort of competition with another power that has essentially saved Assad’s rule, which is of course Russia.
The latter is demanding Iran remove its forces, including Hezbollah, from Syria – but Iran instead wants to preserve its achievements in the field, by way of the Shi’ite militias (its proxies) it has established.
Iran therefore announced that Hezbollah will not retreat from Syria. This month, a Shi’ite militia in Iraq even announced the formation of a new battalion to “Liberate the Golan Heights from the Zionist regime of Israel.”
Despite the great complexity on the Shi’ite side, from the Israeli point of view a new situation is being created in Syria that is different from that which Israel has gotten accustomed to over the past five years. The threat that Hezbollah will now deploy itself along the Golan border and will, in fact, seize control from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordanian border is greater than ever before. The Syrian army is not strong enough to hold onto all the areas “liberated” from the rebels, and it is reasonable to assume that both Hezbollah and Iran will strive to maintain Hezbollah’s presence in the areas bordering Israel.
At this time, both Hezbollah and Iran, each for its own reasons, have a growing interest to intensify hostilities in the area across from Israel (whether via Syria, Hezbollah, or the Palestinians) in such a way that will not lead to war but to tension – not only in the field, but also between Russia and the US. Israel, which is interested in preserving the silence on its borders, will be required to update its concept of security on the northern border. On the operative level, Israel will need to continue investment in the IDF’s air defense – meaning long-term, large-scale and high-cost development and acquisition.
The IDF will also be required to take to more low-signature operations to protect Israel’s red lines.
At the strategic level, Israel already understands that any future confrontations will be accompanied by a growing difficulty in distinguishing between the State of Lebanon and Hezbollah. As IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot made clear: “The declarations heard of late from Beirut exemplify that in a future war, the address will be clear – both the State of Lebanon and the terrorist organizations operating within its territory and with its agreement.”
In parallel, Israel will need to examine how to harness Jordan as a partner in Israel’s interests in the border area vs. Hezbollah presence there. It will also have to explore how to harness Turkey to help it stave off Iranian influence through Hezbollah, by way of exploiting the competition between Iran and Turkey over spheres of influence in Syria. Israel will have to work with the US so as to balance the Russian interest in the region, since Moscow sees the Shi’ite axis as a friend and not an enemy. However, Israel must continue maintaining the important day-to-day dialogue with the Russians and take advantage of areas in which the Russians consider Iran to be not a partner but a competitor.
The author, a major in the IDF reserves, served for 15 years in the military, specializing in intelligence, and holds an MA in Middle East Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She is the founder and CEO of ALMA, an organization specializing in research and analysis of Israel’s security challenges on the northern border. (