In response to the latest Israeli-Iranian hostilities, the head of Iran’s air force, Brig.-Gen. Aziz Nasirzadeh, declared Monday: “We’re ready for the decisive war that will bring about Israel’s disappearance from the earth.” This statement echoes the message behind weeks of Iranian propaganda, accompanied by antisemitic symbols, predicting Israel’s imminent destruction.
The latest hostilities started on January 20 with an attack on military targets in the Damascus region that Syrian media attributed to Israel. Iranian forces responded almost immediately by launching a rocket toward the Mount Hermon ski resort in the Golan Heights, crowded with civilians, yet the Iron Dome missile defense system was able to intercept it.
Israel retaliated with an extensive attack which targeted Iranian bases in Syria and, later, Syrian anti-aircraft infrastructures.
According to media reports, the timing of some of Israel’s recent attacks in Syria is connected to the attempts to smuggle arms on civilian planes flying from Tehran to Damascus and Beirut. These attacks are part of Israel’s continuing effort to prevent this weaponry from being unloaded and delivered to enemy forces.
For example, during the attack attributed to Israel on January 20, an Iranian civilian plane suspected of carrying arms was en route to Damascus’s airport and had to change course and return to Tehran.
Whether or not the first attack was perpetrated by Israel, it was an attack designed to strike only military sites and infrastructure. Iran, however, attacked Israeli civilians, launching a rocket toward thousands of visitors enjoying a popular resort – and this is hardly the first time. Had the rocket not been intercepted, innocent lives could have been lost, and Israel might have been forced to respond in a manner likely to cause wide-scale escalation on its northern borders.
It should be noted that in earlier attacks, Israel targeted specific Iranian military assets often based in one location at the same time. The few larger- scale attacks it did carry out were typically reactive. Therefore, Israel’s military actions during the past two months indicate a gradual shift in its strategy regarding Syria. Israel is now operating against multiple military targets at once.
Moreover, it has abandoned its traditional policy of ambiguity – not only claiming responsibility for the attacks in Syria but also publicizing the specific targets of those attacks. These operations have sent a clear message to the Iranians and Hezbollah in Lebanon: Israel will not tolerate an Iranian stronghold being established in southwest Syria.
This new strategy is driven by multiple factors: First, the United States withdrawing its troops from Syria has weakened its allies’ position regarding Syria – defeat and escape from Syria, as Iranian media defined it. By ending its policy of ambiguity, Israel has compelled the US to support (at least declaratively) its actions in defending itself against imminent threats to its sovereignty.
This will rehabilitate the image of the US as a proactive ally to Israel.
Second, Israel’s significant attacks against Iranian targets in Syria send messages – not only concerning Israel’s North.
Two months ago, Israel was forced to adopt a policy of executing very limited attacks in Gaza, even though 500 rockets had been fired into its territories, endangering civilians, in less than 24 hours. The events on the Gaza border, with an emphasis on the resignation of Israel’s defense minister, were perceived by Hezbollah as a Hamas victory because of Israel’s inability to deal with the Resistance’s determination, which led to internal disputes in Israel.
Therefore, it is important that Israel restore deterrence as a key principle in its security strategy.
Exposing border-crossing tunnels this past month helped to re-establish Israeli deterrence while carrying out extensive attacks against Iran in Syria only accentuated it. Still, since they are finding retaliation against Israel’s North too risky a proposition, the Iranians are trying to escalate the situation on the Gaza border.
Third, the attacks send a message to the Shi’ite Axis (Iran and its proxies in Syria) that Israel has succeeded in finding a way to renew the dialogue with the Russians. On September 18 of last year, Syrian anti-aircraft fire, which was targeting Israeli planes attacking Iranian targets in Syria, shot down a Russian aircraft. The Russians then placed the sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft system in Syria, which may impair the Israeli freedom of action in Syria, as part of the crisis in the Israeli-Russian relations that came after several years of successful security coordination.
It seems that new terms for security coordination have been established between the two nations.
Nevertheless, the recent escalations illustrate that, despite its dominance in Syria, Russia’s ability to dictate the actions of both sides is limited. The Iranian rocket was fired from southern Syria, an area that the Russians already promised Israel would be free of Iranian presence.
Even if this is true, Russia cannot prevent Iranian proxy militias from committing such acts from within the Syrian south. On the other hand, Russia can only limit Israel’s operations in Syria. It cannot force Israel to stop its operations completely, especially when there is proof that Iran poses a threat to Israel in Syria.
Fourth, and perhaps most interesting – Israel’s policy in recent years has been to maximize its operative achievements against Iranians in Syria.
The Shi’ite Axis has intensified its effort to establish a stronghold in southwest Syria. It has recruited locals and spread its Shi’ite militias – most notedly Hezbollah – along the borderline.
All these forces are entangled on the Israeli-Syrian border, while Israel is trying to prevent the Syrian southwest from turning into South Lebanon.
Israel’s ambiguity policy no longer serves the needs of its operational goals – preventing Iran from threatening Israel from within Syria.
The Israeli government and its prime minister are now facing a difficult dilemma: how to act against Iran’s increasing influence and control in Syria and Lebanon, without deteriorating into war. It must be noted that in Lebanon alone, Hezbollah has about 100,000 rockets, 40% of which are in areas under UN supervision, hidden inside or beneath civilian infrastructures, in a manner that makes the population of South Lebanon a human shield. Moreover, Iran is determined to assist Hezbollah to improve its rocket arsenal.
A “too successful” Israeli attack, or an Iranian retaliation that would include Israeli civilian casualties, could drag the region into an escalation that neither side is interested in now.
The Israeli decision to end its ambiguity policy sends a clear message: Israel will not compromise on its security, despite the compromises with Hamas, which were deemed required.
It is not a sign of weakness, but rather an increasing focus on the northern borders, which Israel views as most dangerous and challenging to its security.
Lt.-Col. (res.) Sarit Zehavi is the CEO of Alma Research and Education Centre in the Galilee; Ibrahim Abu Ahmad is a senior researcher in the Alma Research and Education Centre.