Changing of the guard in southern Syria: Latest threat to Israel

Hezbollah entrenched in southern Lebanon near the Israeli border (photo by Carrie Hart).

Developing reports indicate that Israeli planes attacked Iranian targets in Syria on Thursday night, allegedly near areas with a heavy Hezbollah presence close to the Golan Heights, and that Syria retaliated.

During the past few months, there have been fewer Israeli attacks in Syria. This had been seen as an Israeli decision to use more caution because of misunderstandings that developed with Russia after an Israeli strike on Iranian military bases in Syria on September 17. When Israeli planes returned to home base following that strike, the Syrians began shooting missiles at targets in the air, which resulted in the downing of a Russian plane that killed 15 Russian soldiers. Russian President Vladimir Putin indirectly blamed Israel for those actions, accusing the Jewish State of not giving Russia enough advanced warning of the Israeli military operation, according to a de-escalation agreement between both countries. Afterwards, Russia delivered an advanced S-300 anti-missile defense system to Syria, against Israel’s wishes.

There had been some slight changes reported in Iranian tactics during the past several months. Under the demands of Israel, and the encouragement of Russia, Iran supposedly reduced its presence close to the Israeli border, as the Syrian regime moved its forces into that area. But, these actions are now questionable.

The reported Israeli attack on Thursday night indicates that Iran is further entrenching itself in Syria. The alleged Israeli strike included a hit near a Syrian military base. It was a warning by Israel, following media reports earlier in the week, that two new Syrian military divisions led by Iranian officers had mobilized near Israel’s northern border.

In addition, Hezbollah is deployed along the border between Lebanon and Syria, including Shiite militias under Iranian command near the Golan Heights.

The Israeli military has made it clear it will not tolerate a Hezbollah-Iranian presence anywhere in Syria, especially on the Golan Heights. The Israeli government has indicated it will not allow advanced weapons to be shipped from Iran to Hezbollah, and will take action whenever needed, despite the tensions with Russia.

Apparently, with previous intelligence information that advanced weapons systems had been recently transferred to Hezbollah, Israel also hit a Hezbollah weapons depot on Thursday night.

On Friday, Hezbollah warned Israel not to attack its positions in Lebanon, threatening to retaliate against major Israeli targets which it displayed in a graphic video.  In the past, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to strike Hezbollah in Lebanon in order to constrain Iran.

Hezbollah currently has approximately 150,000 rockets and missiles directed at Israel from Lebanon, which can strike anywhere in the country. These missiles are being strategically placed in homes on the Lebanese border with Israel.

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, Senior Project Director at the Jerusalem Center For Public Affairs, told this writer in a recent interview, “I don’t think that Israel has changed its policy because Israel is committed to preventing Iran from delivering weapons to Hezbollah, and from turning Syria into an Iranian base that can be used, also, for terrorism and for military purposes against Israel. I don’t think this has changed.” 

Israeli military leaders do not want to see an escalation on Israel’s northern border that could become out of control. But, it also wants to deter Iran and Hezbollah from operating nearby.

According to Kuperwasser, “If the Iranian effort to arm Hezbollah will continue under these conditions, and Israel takes action, it’s a kind of escalation that is less controllable than it used to be.”

While Israel was not happy with the Russian-Syrian missile deal, Israel did not prevent the S-300’s from being shipped by Putin to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Israeli military leaders saw it as a deal made between Syria and Russia that they could not interfere with. However, Thursday night’s reported attack by Israel on Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah targets makes it clear that Israel will intervene when necessary despite the presence of the S-300 Russian anti-missile defense system in Syria.

Kuperwasser says this action on the part of the Russians is dangerous because of the inexperience of Syrian military forces. “They don’t know how to use it. This may end up with all kinds of repercussions that nobody wants to experience. So, that message is being very clearly conveyed to Moscow.”

Kuperwasser re-iterated that Israeli leaders have made it clear that if any actions by Hezbollah in Syria or Lebanon threaten the Jewish State, the price of these actions will be extremely heavy. However, Kuperwasser does not believe that Israel is interested in starting a war in the north. “We may take preventive strikes, but I am not sure about pre-emptive strikes. But, what we do, pre-emptively, is try to prevent Hezbollah from having the kind of weapons that may cause them to be less cautious.”

One of the ways that Israel gains intelligence information on Hezbollah, which has resulted in continued complaints by Lebanon to the United Nations, is by activating “fly-overs”. The “fly-overs” are to make sure that Hezbollah is not planning some terrorist activities against Israel. Kuperwasser sees it as a tool that contributes to Israel’s security, and a deterrence. If Hezbollah forces know they are under surveillance, Hezbollah will refrain from carrying out military operations that they may have wanted to do if there were no “fly-overs”.

Kuperwasser further states that the “fly-overs” stabilize the situation on the northern border and are necessary because of U.N. inaction. “The problem is that the United Nations doesn’t do anything in order to perform its mission in Lebanon, which is to prevent Hezbollah’s presence in the southern part of Lebanon. And to prevent the influx of weapons into Lebanon.”

There have also been big changes in the area of Quneitra because Syrian rebel forces have been pushed back by Assad’s regime. Reportedly, other forces are now occupying that area, which are part of Hezbollah, and aided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Kuperwasser states that the Israeli government is not looking to expand the demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria. However Israel’s agreement with Russia, in what has been accepted as an interim step, is that Iranian forces will not enter this area of the Golan Heights, which is only dozens of kilometers away from the Israel border. What Israel has further demanded is that Iran should not be present in Syria at all. But, evidence is now being revealed that Iranians, clothed in Syrian army uniforms, are among the forces in the border area of the Golan Heights, even though there is a Russian agreement to keep such forces at least 85 kilometers from the area.

Kuperwasser acknowledges the area is not quiet at all. “We are concerned about what is going on there. It’s not the Gaza Strip and its not southern Lebanon, yet. But, it is an area that we should understand how it looks. The Russians are present there with military police… So far, nothing big has happened. But, caution is good advice here.”

In the meantime, there have not been any major attacks against Israel in the north, since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, which occurred between Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah. However, what could change this situation is instability in Iran because of American sanctions which are hurting the Iranian government, financially, and have precipitated public protests.

This is one reason that Kuperwasser thinks might have started altering the quiet on Israel’s northern border. “Iran has built this arsenal of 150,000 rockets in the hands of Hezbollah, not because they don’t have enough space in Iran for all these rockets. They expect Hezbollah to use these rockets if something happens to Iran. Tensions in Iran are growing with the American sanctions. I don’t think it is something that is going to be a real escalation. But, it’s an option. So, everybody has to keep that in mind.”

Kuperwasser thinks its Iran’s way of sending a message to the Americans and Israelis that putting pressure on Iran will not come free of charge. “So, one thing they did was encourage Hamas and Islamic Jihad to launch rockets (in Gaza). And, another thing they did is strengthen their proxies in Syria and Lebanon. You know they brought a lot of forces into Syria under the guise of supporting Assad; under the excuse of supporting Assad. They brought a lot of troops in to take orders from Tehran.”

Kuperwasser is encouraging Israelis and others to be on the alert and watch carefully what is going on with Iran, domestically. The international community is in the midst of taking steps that are putting great pressure on Iran. How will this affect Iran in the coming months, and how will the Iranian government cope with it? This is where the tensions may grow, according to Kuperwasser. “I always thought the Iranians would be very cautious. But, before they will show caution, they will try to judge the temperature of the water with other options. That is what can happen in the coming months.”

At the present time, Israel’s government has managed to remain stable even with only 61 members of Netanyahu’s coalition still in place. This is after former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned and took his political party out of the government. There is only a 1 point majority, which makes the Netanyahu government vulnerable to failure and the possibility of early elections. Netanyahu recently warned his coalition partners about the danger of bringing down the government now. Kuperwasser perceives it is the instability on Israel’s northern border that has concerned Netanyahu. “This is such a volatile situation; such an unpredictable situation because it is not something we experienced in the past.”

Israel almost went to war with Hamas after major clashes in Gaza, recently. But, this could have been a way of Iran distracting Israel in a complicated conflict in the south, while the real focus needed to be on the north.  Kuperwasser sees the situation with Iran in Syria as a much greater threat.

Meanwhile, Assad continues to settle accounts with rebels who were helping Israel and western nations during the years when southwest Syria was not in the control of the Syrian government. Rebel commanders are being rounded up, arrested and allegedly murdered by Assad’s forces.

It appears Iran and its proxies now have a central role in the Syrian government’s presence in the southern region of Syria, and in other parts under Assad’s control. In fact, Iran seems to be fully integrating its forces into Assad’s military, making Iran’s presence in Syria somewhat hidden but definitely recognizable to concerned Israeli military leaders. It may lead to a much greater escalation on Israel’s norther border in the near future.

About the Author
Carrie Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, military and social issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East, and the international community.
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