The recent military escalation between Syrian, Iranian, and Israeli forces is the result of a long-term Iranian war of attrition, which Tehran has begun to wage against Israel from Syria.
Iran’s strategy is based on the ‘thousand cuts’ approach, rather than launching one major attack. It seeks to create a new reality gradually, with a series of events that play out over the long term.
The military clash that occurred in Syria and northern Israel on February 10th is one example of the Iranian campaign of attrition. Iran’s overall goal is to create a conglomerate under its control, encompassing Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, in order to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, and to challenge Israel’s policy of stopping these weapons transfers.
The Iranians are seeking to create a new front against Israel from Syria, alongside their proxy in Lebanon – Hezbollah. This is why the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has two wartime formations in place under its Northern Command, one for Lebanon, which was under my command, and the second for Syria. In a future war, there is a good chance that both fronts will be active.
A New Victor Emerges in Syria
After seven years of civil war, a clear victor is emerging in Syria. It is Russia and its allies, who consist of Iran, the Assad regime, and Hezbollah. They are consolidating their power in Syria, and creating a new country.
At the same time, the United States is in the process of leaving Syria. This has included a painful abandonment of the Kurds, who were the most positive force in the Syrian war. Under the new reality, Russia and Iran want to exploit their victory in a strategic manner.
President Vladimir Putin is showing the entire world that Russia is once again a world power. He is demonstrating to the global community that Moscow does not desert its allies, even during difficult times, in contrast to America’s dealings with Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak.
Russia has proven that it does not hesitate to use force. The resounding message is that it is unwise to mess with Russia.
The Iranians, meanwhile, are guided by a big picture strategy, based on the vision of creating a new Iranian empire. An Iranian-Shiite axis is forming across the region, which is threatening the Middle East’s Sunni bloc, led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Translating Victory Into Strategic Gains
Russia is in Syria to stay. It retains a naval presence at the Tartus Port, a complex air defense system, intelligence capabilities, and control of airfields. Iran’s Islamic Republican Guards Corps (IRGC), and its elite unit, the Quds Force, are managing the war efforts. Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Solemani is a highly sophisticated military leader who is running this campaign to change the status quo in Syria.
The Iranian campaign is now turning against Israel, opening another front against it. In the past, during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the Syrian arena remained totally quiet. Today, a new war could see both Lebanon and the Golan Heights serve as Iranian and Hezbollah bases of operation.
A Strategic Ambush
In this context, Iran created a strategic ambush in the latest escalation, designed to disrupt an existing reality. In a brazen move, Iran sent a drone into Israeli airspace. It was clear to the Iranians that Israel would detect and shoot down the drone, but they wanted to show that Iran is active in the area.
More worrisome are the Assad regime’s massive anti-aircraft missile fire on the Israeli Air Force plane that responded to the drone incident and the downing of an Israeli F-16 jet which constitute an achievement in terms of psychological-propaganda.
To be sure, Israel’s second wave of strikes in that incident was a very strong response in which Syria paid a heavy price. Nevertheless, it is impossible to point to a clear victor. There was an exchange of blows, which was ultimately designed to create a new reality for Israel, and change the way it has worked in Syria until now. This was a challenge to the reported frequent Israeli air strikes against the smuggling of advanced weapons to Hezbollah.
It remains unclear how Israel will respond the next time it detects an attempt to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah via Syria.
Russia, for its part, worked to prevent further escalation. Putin was in touch with Prime Minister Netanyahu and with the Iranians, and instructed all parties to end hostilities, as Russia had no interest in allowing the confrontation to continue. Both sides complied – no one is interested in crossing Russia.
More Trouble Yet to Come
The reality unfolding in Syria is highly complex for Israel, made more so by Russia’s presence on the ground. Russian personnel are in close proximity to the Assad regime and Quds Force combatants, making airstrikes in Syria a precarious affair.
There is a growing difficulty for Israel in implementing its policy of striking advanced weapons en route to Hezbollah. While Iran does not seek all-out war, it is prepared to go to the edge of conflict. Iran continues to increase its ability to threaten Israel. United States influence on these events is nonexistent.
Israel, for its part, must internalize that the reality has changed. It is vital for Israel to maintain its air superiority in the northern arena. The State of Israel must be prepared for similar incidents to occur in the future – and to extract far heavier prices from the enemy. The toll inflicted in the recent clash was insufficiently dramatic.
The IDF will also have to be prepared for terrorist intrusions from the Syrian Golan Heights, and for the escalation to spread from the air to the ground.
The IDF and its commanders can be trusted to prepare for this quickly changing reality, and to be ready to defeat Iran or its allies in any battle in the north.
Edited by: Yaakov Lappin
Co-edited by: Jared Sapolsky
Notice: The views expressed above do not represent the views of the IDF, the Foreign Ministry or the organization Our Soldiers Speak. They are reflective solely of the views of the author.