Udi Dekel

Beware an Iranian ambush in Syria

Tehran aims to drag Israel into confrontation with Russia -- the challenge is knowing when to retaliate and when to stand down
Anti-aircraft fire rises into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases around Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018, following what the Israeli military said was an Iranian barrage of rockets against Israeli bases on the Golan Heights. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)
Anti-aircraft fire rises into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases around Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018, following what the Israeli military said was an Iranian barrage of rockets against Israeli bases on the Golan Heights. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

The last two weeks have seen a succession of security incidents in the Syrian theater: anti-aircraft fire from Syrian territory at Israeli planes flying over the Golan Heights; retaliatory Israeli strikes on anti-aircraft batteries and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as on additional targets on the Syrian side of the border; the launch of two Grad rockets from Syrian territory at Israel’s Mount Hermon; Israeli response with strikes on Iranian, Hezbollah, and Syrian regime targets, chief among them a logistics center used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which includes an operational infrastructure that had been speedily built in the Tiyas military airbase (an area according to the Iranians was under a Russian defensive umbrella); and anti-aircraft fire from Syria toward Mount Hermon, without any ordnance falling within Israeli territory.

The two Grad rockets were launched at Mount Hermon (one landing on it and the other apparently within Syrian territory) from a range of some 30 km within the border, an area where a number of groups are active and have an interest in striking at Israel, each for its own reasons. The first is the Assad regime, which seeks to deter Israel from continued strikes in Syria; the second is the Shi’ite militias run by Iran, whose motivation is to avenge Israel’s aerial attacks against the Iranian entrenchment and its proxies in Syria; the third is Hezbollah, which is signaling that it does not intend to give up on its precision-missile project—and if doing this from Syria and not from Lebanon is possible, then all the better.

Another possible theory is that ties between Moscow and Tehran may have soured over the Syrian question, with Assad complaining about having to pay the price of Iran’s actions in Syria, and that, as a result, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are interested in stirring up escalation without taking responsibility for it. The bottom line is to increase Syrian dependency on Iran, given its damage power – the power to undermine stability and disrupt the political processes necessary for reforming the country’s governance.

Israel, for its part, is taking a dual approach to the Syrian theater. On the one hand, as far as it is concerned, the only responsible actor is the Assad regime. This view stems from the “educational” doctrine that avoids accepting a plurality of responsible actors; whoever invites hostile elements into his country and hosts them should then bear the consequences. And indeed, Israel has placed the responsibility for the firing at the Hermon on the Assad regime, as it is the actor who controls the area, without making any direct allegations against Iran.

On the other hand, Israel sees Iran as an enemy whose consolidation in Syria poses a core challenge and threat that must be disrupted through air strikes and other military operations, and not by targeting the Assad regime.

Israel has restrained its strikes in Syria in recent months, apparently due to pressure from Moscow, informed by a desire to preserve good ties with Russia in order to help advance a coordinated Russian-American move toward an arrangement in Syria that would entail removing the Iranian military forces. The rocket-launching incident provided the IDF with an opportunity to strike at Iranian infrastructures that had been rebuilt and renewed in Syria without overly angering Russia and possibly also to demonstrate the dangers inherent to Iranian conduct and to encourage Russia, as well as the Assad regime, to move ahead with the political process in Syria.

The relations and coordination between Moscow and Jerusalem displease the Iranians, who seek to neutralize Israel’s achievements so far in a number of ways: harming Israeli-Russian ties; reducing Israel’s freedom of aerial action over Syria; continuing Iranian consolidation in Syria, and increasing Assad’s dependency on Iranian aid. The Iranians are also troubled by the contacts between Washington and Moscow to resolve the crisis in Syria, including the planned meeting among the national security advisers of the United States, Russia, and Israel, whose basic aim is to generate pressure to compel Iran to leave Syria and a political process that will reduce Iran’s clout and influence in the country.

In Iran’s view, the way to stymie Israel is to initiate “small” incidents in Syria that will expand Israel’s points of friction with the forces of both Russia and the Assad regime. The more Israel is forced to respond to incidents, the greater the chance of mistakes and clashes with Russia as well as with regime forces. If Israel opts for forbearance, new rules of the game will be set and Iran will have more freedom to pursue its entrenchment in Syria. In either case, Iran stands to gain, and this is the logic behind the current policy of the Revolutionary Guards in Syria.

So far, the IDF has enjoyed aerial leeway, and if it avoids mistakes and wisely chooses what to respond to and what it might let pass (especially regarding the Russian forces in Syria), Israel will be able, for now, to continue striking at Iranian attempts at entrenchment and smuggling of weaponry to its proxies, including Hezbollah. In parallel, Israel will be able to improve conditions for a political arrangement led by Russia and the United States. Given the political crisis in Israel, this mission rests almost exclusively with the chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who bears the heavy responsibility of not falling victim to the Iranian ambush.

About the Author
Brig. Gen. (res.) Dekel Udi Dekel is the managing director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University, was head of the negotiations team with the Palestinians in the Annapolis process under the Olmert government.
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