Analysis

Fighting Iran's Ambitions in Syria, Israel Risks Angering Russia

The question Israeli leaders must ask themselves: When will Israeli tactical successes in Syria turn into a strategic risk?

Israeli soldiers take part in an exercise in the Golan Heights near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, March 20, 2017.
Israeli soldiers take part in an exercise in the Golan Heights near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, March 20, 2017. BAZ RATNER/REUTERS

Last Friday’s intercept of a Syrian anti-aircraft missile in Israeli airspace by the anti-missile “Arrow” system altered Israel’s public handling of its airstrikes in Syria. Previously, Israeli leaders had issued general threats that convoys transporting advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah would be bombed, but refrained from commenting on any of the specific reports of such strikes in the Arab media.

But since the anti-aircraft missile, which was aimed at Israeli jets attacking targets in Syria, entered Israeli space, it required operating the Arrow system, and therefore brought about the first official Israeli confirmation of such an airstrike. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot referred to it on Tuesday.

Netanyahu, speaking to journalists who had accompanied him to China, said he made it clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Israel would continue to attack arms convoys, adding that Moscow hadn’t changed its policy about such Israeli strikes. This was a response to the claim by Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations that Russia had told Israel to halt its airstrikes.

Eisenkot, in a speech at Netanya Academic College, said Israel had managed to create a mechanism to prevent conflicts in Syria with the Russians “despite last weekend’s tensions,” and that it would continue “to prevent the arming of those who shouldn’t be allowed to arm themselves with advanced weaponry” – namely, Hezbollah.

Both Netanyahu and Eisenkot described Israel’s policy goals as unchanged from what they were more than five years ago, shortly after Syria’s civil war began: keeping Israel out of the actual fighting but trying to prevent arms transfers to Hezbollah.

The first goal has been achieved in full. As for the second, the numerous reports of Israeli strikes indicate that some of the smuggled arms have been intercepted. But Netanyahu himself admitted, in a speech to the UN General Assembly in October 2015, that some advanced weaponry has reached its destination.

Meanwhile, a significant turning point has occurred within Syria itself. The Assad regime’s recapture of Aleppo, combined with achievements on other fronts in recent months, have stabilized the country’s situation and reduced the chances of it collapsing anytime soon (unless dictator Bashar Assad is assassinated). These successes, achieved thanks to Russian air support and Shi’ite militias sent by Iran, have encouraged the regime to change its policy in recent months and start trying to bring down Israeli jets operating in Syria (last Friday’s incident wasn’t the first of its kind).

The question Israel’s leadership must ask itself now is whether this change in circumstances requires a change in Israeli policy – or in other words, when is a string of airstrikes that are tactical successes liable to create strategic risk by spurring Syria into a harsher response, or alternatively by persuading Moscow to send a strongly worded cease-and-desist message (which, according to Netanyahu, hasn’t yet happened).

But Israel, judging by both its public statements and another airstrike attributed to it on Sunday – an assassination of members of a militia affiliated with the Assad regime in the Syrian Golan Heights – shows no sign of intending to draw back from conflict. This determination might also be connected to the other goals it has recently set for itself in the Syrian theater.

Its main declared goal, which both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have mentioned repeatedly recently, is preventing Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard from returning to the Golan. In recent years, rebel militias have pushed the Assad regime away from the Israeli border. But now, with the wind in its sails after its victory in Aleppo, the regime is beefing up its forces in the northern Golan, and has already forced some villages that had cooperated with the rebels to sign cease-fire and surrender agreements.

Israel suspects that several Hezbollah operatives have already resumed operations near the border fence under the aegis of the regime’s advance. But it is trying to prevent them from establishing themselves there, and also to prevent Iranian experts from joining them.

Last month, during his visit to Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, Netanyahu also articulated another goal: He asked Trump for American recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan. To date, the international community has not recognized the 1981 annexation, but Netanyahu may perceive an opportunity with the ongoing Syrian civil war, global criticism of the Assad regime and Trump’s avowals of support for Israel since taking office.

The likelihood of Netanyahu’s request being granted currently looks slim. Nor is it clear that he actually intends to seriously try and persuade the Americans. But his remarks were undoubtedly noted in both Damascus and Moscow.

Eisenkot also said on Tuesday that Mustafa Badreddine – the man described as Hezbollah’s chief of staff, who was killed in mysterious circumstances in Syria last May – was actually killed by some of his colleagues in the organization. Similar reports by Arab media outlets in recent months have been met with skepticism, but now this account is being openly verbalized by the Israeli chief of staff. Given the depth of Israel’s intelligence coverage of Hezbollah, it’s reasonable to assume that Eisenkot isn’t just indulging in wishful thinking.

This is an interesting development for two reasons. First, it reveals the depth of the internal schisms within the Iranian-led axis. And second, it shows that Israel would be happy to bring these battles out into the open as part of the psychological warfare it is conducting against its regional rivals.