The Iranian presence in Syria – how serious a threat to Israel?

The Assad regime began in 1970, when Hafez Assad took power.

A Syrian tank loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces is seen in Fleita, Syria August 2, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Syrian tank loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces is seen in Fleita, Syria August 2, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel has been concerned about the gowning Iranian influence in Syria. Israel has serious reason to be worried, but the picture is not that grim. First of all Syria is not a former Israeli ally. Actually Israel and Iran were the ones that had a (kind of) partnership until the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since then Iran became a sworn enemy, while Syria, since 1948, has been always one.
The Assad regime began in 1970, when Hafez Assad took power. When he died in 2000, his son Bashar Assad, replaced him. Now it might seem that Iran is going to be the next ruler of Syria, but Assad has no plans to retire. Against the odds, he proved he can survive, and is not about to allow Iran to seize his country.
As in Iraq, in Syria as well the local Arab government collaborates with Iran against their common enemy. Yet after the latter is defeated Assad will not need Iran that much – let alone if Iran tries to call the shots in Syria. Assad is an Arab, a Syrian nationalist, and he is also not a radical Islamist, which makes him very different from his Iranian partner. It is also important to remember that there were always conflicts of interests between them, which could increase in the future, for instance if Iran tries to drag Assad into a fight with Israel. He avoided that when his country and military were in much better shape; he will need years, probably decades, to recover from the civil war, before he is ready to face Israel.
From 1974 and until 2011 there was total quiet on Israel’s border with Syria, in the Golan Heights. Following the Syrian civil war there were dozens of minor incidents when fire from Syria, mostly mortar shells, landed on the Israeli side. It usually happened by mistake, as part of the clashes between Assad and his rivals. The IDF responded immediately by hitting Assad’s positions, even when Assad’s forces did not fire at Israel, since from Israeli perspective Assad is responsible for what happens in Syria. Israel will adhere to this policy if Iran strikes Israel from Syria.
Iran will no doubt use Hezbollah or some other pro-Iranian militia/proxy, but Israel can blame and then attack Assad directly. Israel could undermine his rule, for instance by destroying his air force. Iran, after investing heavily in blood and treasure in helping Assad, will not want to see all of that go to waste. Iran therefore might hesitate in provoking Israel.
Since 2011 the only time an Israeli was killed on the border with Syria was June 22, 2014. There were also rare cases in which one or a few Israelis were wounded there. That could change, but meanwhile it shows that Israel’s policy, i.e. to stay out of the Syrian civil war, has been working. Israel should not change that in spite of the Iranian involvement in Syria.
Israel has been providing humanitarian aid to up to 200,000 Syrian who live near the border with Israel.
This support encourages those Syrians to avoid confronting Israel and maybe even there could be some kind of cooperation between them and Israel, against Iran’s protégés in Syria. Israel has to be careful not to rely too much on any Syrian group. In 1982 Israel had a pact with the Christians of Lebanon, a country that was then in a state of civil war. The Israeli gamble, i.e. to put their Christian partner in charge of Lebanon, failed and it cost Israel dearly. Israel should learn from that experience and not try a similar move in Syria against Iran, although Israel wants to kick Iran out of Syria.
Assad’s military was quite strong before declining in recent years. There were periods when up to six Syrian divisions were deployed near the Golan Heights, with thousands of tanks, artillery pieces, etc. Compared to that, the pro-Iranian forces in Syria are far less powerful. Iran could send reinforcements but even then Iran will not have the military strength in Syria Assad had in the past. Iran also does not have a formidable conventional military to begin with, one that has for example a significant and a capable armor corps, since Iran relies on other methods to fight.
Israel’s main problem is actually not in Syria but in Lebanon where Hezbollah holds up to 150,000 rockets and missiles. Some are quite accurate and others cover all of Israel. Hezbollah might deploy some of them in Syria but then it will have to split its forces between Lebanon and Syria. It could be quite a constraint for this group, that already has to recover after it suffered over 1,000 casualties in Syria.
All in all, Israel has to monitor and to try to reduce the Iranian presence in Syria. However, there are several factors which suggest that Israel’s situation in regard to Syria is not that bad.
The author is an analyst of Israel’s national security, and used to work for the IDF.