With the start of a new year, Israel is focused on countering a looming threat developing on the Golan Heights.
Iran, which has repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel, is establishing a military presence on Syria’s side of the Golan, which, until very recently, was partially held by rebel forces seeking the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
More broadly speaking, Iran is trying to fill the strategic void created by the defeat of Islamic State in Syria.
Islamic State, which once controlled vast swaths of Syrian territory, was beaten into submission by Syria and its allies — Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and an assortment of Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan — and by the United States, Kurds and local Syrian forces.
Iran increased its influence in Syria on December 30 when the Syrian army recaptured the area around the town of Beit Jinn, the last significant rebel enclave on the Golan. Syria — Iran’s closest ally in the Middle East — was thus able to reassert control over its sector of the Golan. The fall of Beit Jinn was not only a victory for the Syrian regime, which has been embroiled in a civil war since 2011. It also contributed to Iran’s quest to become a hegemonic force in the Middle East.
Iran has been consolidating its position in the region by various means. It is building a land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea to ferry arms and munitions to Syria and Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon, which has amassed an arsenal of about 120,000 rockets. And Iran is constructing a permanent land base in al-Kiswah, 13 kilometres from Damascus, Syria’s capital, and 50 kilometres from the Golan, which Israel captured in 1967 and annexed in 1981.
Along with these developments, Iran — the preeminent Shiite power in the region — is establishing a naval base near Tartus, where Russian ships are already anchored. Meanwhile, Iranian-backed militias, numbering in the vicinity of 25,000 foot soldiers, are entrenching themselves in Syria. Last month, the leader of Iraq’s 10,000-strong Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Sheikh Akram al-Kaabi, said he was “fully prepared” to “liberate” the Golan if asked by the Syrian government.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Avigdor Liberman have made it crystal clear that Israel will not tolerate an Iranian and an Iranian-supported Shiite presence on the Golan.
“We simply will not allow Shiite and Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” said Liberman, who added that Iran has sent advisors rather than troops to Syria. “And we will not allow Syria to become a forward operating base against Israel.”
During his talks with French President Emanuel Macron in Paris in November, Netanyahu said that Israel would not hesitate to attack Iranian targets in Syria. As he put it, “We will not allow (Iran) to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do so, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”
On December 2, Israeli aircraft bombed al-Kiswah, killing 12 Iranian military personnel. This was not the first time Iranian advisors based in Syria had been targeted. Three years ago, an Israeli helicopter gunship killed an Iranian general touring the Golan.
The latest Israeli air strike prompted Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, to warn that a war may break out between Israel and Iran in the not too distant future. “If Iran is not rolled back in Syria, then the chances of military confrontation are growing,” he said. “I don’t want to tell you by the year or by the month. I’d say even by the week.”
Tension is also mounting due to Israel’s rejection of an agreement, signed by the United States, Russia and Jordan on November 8, to expand de-escalation zones in southwestern Syria, where the borders of Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.
Foreign forces — namely Iran and Hezbollah — are supposed to withdraw from these exclusionary zones. But Israel fears that Iran will leave behind friendly local paramilitary forces and foreign fighters who may be tempted to attack its side of the Golan from positions as close as five kilometres from the border.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last month that Iran maintains a “legitimate” presence in Syria, but Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Israel is not bound by the November accord, and that it intends to continue to “operate in Syria in accordance with our security needs.”
Netanyahu doubtless left a similar message with a U.S. National Security Council delegation that visited Israel in November.
In practice, this means that Israel has every intention of enforcing its so-called “red lines” in Syria.
Israel will react militarily if hostile foreign forces mass on its border. Israel will continue bombing convoys transporting advanced weapons to Hezbollah from Syria to Lebanon. In past few years, Israel has bombed almost 100 such convoys. Israel will strike Syrian military sites deemed detrimental to its national interests.
Israel’s concerns about Iran are such that the chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, General Gadi Eisenkot, recently offered to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Arab state at odds with Iran.
In his first interview with an Arab media organization, Eisenkot told the Elaph website that Israel and Saudi Arabia share “many mutual interests,” and that Israel is ready to “exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and to exchange intelligence to confront Iran.”
Calling Iran the “biggest threat to the region,” he said that “the Iranian plan to control the Middle East” must be stopped in its tracks. “This what what must be prevented.”
It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will cooperate with Israel in curbing Iranian ambitions. Eisenkot’s hopes notwithstanding, it may not be possible to forge a “strategic consensus” between Israel and Arab countries still technically at war with the Jewish state.
Yet it’s safe to say that Israel will do everything it can to stem the tide of Iran’s military activities in Syria, whether in the country as a whole, or on the Golan in particular.