Israel’s Strategy for Maneuvering in Syria

The situation in Syria is drastically changing to the benefit of Israel, and the interests of Russia and Iran are beginning to diverge to a point where Russia is now more willing to accommodate Israeli security needs and interests. In a major positive development for Israel, Russia is now considering pushing Iranian forces back some 60 kilometers from Israel’s border, east of the Damascus-Daraa road. Russia has also expressed that it would like to see the removal of all foreign forces from Syria, including Iranian forces, Hezbollah, and other Iran-affiliated groups. This will be a tough sell for the Iranians, who have explicitly stated that nobody will be telling them what to do in Syria. It will also surely increase the widening gap between Russia and Iran, much to Israel’s benefit.

Russia and the Assad regime are beginning to see Iran’s presence in southwest Syria as a major liability to the stability of the country. Israel is continuing its airstrikes against Iranian positions in Syria, with the latest targeting a military base used by Hezbollah near the Homs airport. It is estimated that Iranian affiliated forces in Syria now include around 2,000 Iranians, including officers, advisors, and Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) members. They also have influence over around 9,000 Shia militiamen from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and 7,000 Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Since the civil war began in 2011 these forces have been instrumental in helping Assad’s army recapture much of the country from rebel groups and terrorists.

Israel and Iran narrowly avoided entering a large-scale conflict with potential to completely destabilize the country in early May. After absorbing numerous and highly damaging Israeli strikes on its bases, IRGC operatives fired a small barrage of 32 rockets at Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights, only four of which made it out of Syria and were subsequently shot down by the Iron Dome defense system. For the Iranians, it was a complete failure. And worse, it prompted a vicious Israeli counterattack, which saw over fifty Iranian targets throughout Syria destroyed, including weapons storage facilities, logistical sites, and intelligence centers. Israeli jets also destroyed five Russian-built, anti-aircraft batteries belonging to the regime, from which the Israeli jets had received fire.

This massive retaliatory strike happened just hours after Netanyahu met with President Putin, likely indicating that the two reached an agreement relating to Israel’s “freedom of action” in Syria to defend itself. Shortly after the meeting it was confirmed that the Russians were no longer sending the Assad regime S-300 anti-aircraft systems, signaling a major Russian shift towards Israeli interests over Iranian.

Netanyahu was also likely given the green light by Putin to hit Iran hard in Syria, in exchange that Israel minimize its attacks on Syrian regime bases and other targets. A top Israeli Air Force official even recently said to the Syrian regime “don’t attack us and we won’t attack you,” referring to the regime’s use of its Russian anti-aircraft systems against the IAF. Israel wants to convey the message to Assad that it is willing to ease up on or entirely ignore regime targets if it agrees to let Israel act as needed against Iran and Hezbollah.

Putin has valued Iranian forces and their proxies, who have served as reliable foot soldiers to his airstrikes since 2015. However, more than his partnership with Iran, Putin desires stability in Syria and the security of the Assad regime. Putin will not allow Israel to take any actions which would entirely destabilize the country after all the work Russia has put in to propping up the regime and protecting its presence there.

It may not be a coincidence that since their meeting and Israel’s severely weakening Iran’s position in Syria, the harsh rhetoric from Israeli leaders threatening to “overthrow the Assad regime” has ceased. Threats to hold the regime accountable for Iranian-sponsored attacks from its territory may have been the leverage that Israel needed to get Putin to look the other way as Israel conducts major strikes against Iranian positions.

Now that much of the country has been recaptured by regime forces or its allies, a major divergence between Russian and Iranian interests in Syria is taking place. From the start, Putin was most committed to ensuring the security and stability of the Syrian government. Syria is a major purchaser of Russian arms, along with other strong economic ties. Russia also has strategic military bases in Syria, including its only Mediterranean naval base in Tartus. Iran has always had widely different interests in Syria. Iran is most concerned with its continued and easy access of arms, soldiers, and supplies from Tehran to Beirut, to support its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. While the two parties share support for the survival of the regime, they worked well together throughout the war in reconquering swaths of land captured by rebels or terrorist groups. Now, with the survival of the regime no longer in question, a divergence in Russian and Iranian interests in the future of Syria is growing, and Putin seems to have become the key decisionmaker in Syria.

Israel must maintain a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Russia and continue to convince Putin that it is in Russian interest to push back Iranian forces as well as preserve Israel’s freedom of action in Syria, and that this can be done while also ensuring the stability of the regime. Israel can and should tolerate Assad’s forces within proximity to the Golan Heights, rather than Hezbollah or other Iranian proxies, or Iranian forces themselves.

A factor which risks damaging this strategic and fragile relationship in Syria is a possible Syrian army incursion into Daraa, the city where the revolution began in 2011. Monitors fear that Assad’s forces are gearing up for a major offensive, threatening peace in the demilitarized zone near the 1974 armistice line, to which Israel would respond with great force.

Moving forward, it would be wise for Israel to make more effort to accommodate Putin by specifically targeting Iranian and Hezbollah related targets rather than Syrian, and to always alert Russian forces beforehand. Israel should also avoid hitting the regime’s Russian-made anti-aircraft batteries unless they directly target or hit Israeli aircraft. Putin would surely prefer that the Iranians fend for themselves in Syria and would not like to see more Russian-made anti-aircraft batteries fail to stop Israeli planes, and ultimately be destroyed by them.

In the short term, Israel must continue to convince Russia that Iran’s expanded presence in Syria is a destabilizing factor, increasing the chance of Israeli-Iranian or Israeli-Syrian war. Continued mutual Iranian-Israeli aggression towards one another will prove this point. Iran’s increased presence and aggression in Syria has become a liability for the Assad regime and Russia. Russian and Iranian interests in the country are increasingly becoming at odds, which Israel could exploit and move to further drive a wedge between the two countries. It may not be long until Putin turns his back on the ground forces which formerly helped him maintain the regime, in return for a guarantee that Israel will not destabilize the country.

About the Author
Daniel Bucksbaum received his BA at Western Michigan University, where he studied political science and Arabic. He specializes in Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs, and has previously written op-ed articles for the Jerusalem Post.
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