The Israeli military has struck more than 200 targets in Syria and fired 800 missiles and mortar shells over the past year and a half, focusing on Iranian weapons convoys and other Iranian targets in Syria, a senior military official said Tuesday. The army is aware of missile transfers from Iran to Iraq and from there to Syria, he added.
The IDF has also been in engaged in ongoing operations against the Islamic State in recent years and made a significant contribution to the organization’s defeat, the officer said.
The Syrian army has returned to the Golan Heights and now controls around 70 percent of the territory, he continued, adding that Syria plans to reopen the Quneitra border crossing. In addition, Russia has stationed five battalions of military police in the area to enforce agreements between the Syrian regime and rebel militias and ensure that residents of villages in the Golan aren’t hurt.
The IDF’s activity in Syria has occasionally created tension with Russia, which is allied with the Assad regime. The Russians complained that IDF attacks in Syria undermined the regime’s achievements.
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But Moscow accepted the IDF’s position that Iranian forces must be kept at least 80 kilometers from the Israeli border, because it views Iran as a rival for influence in Syria once the Syrian civil war ends.
In May, the senior officer said, the IDF noticed a change in Iran’s activities in Syria. Tehran hasn’t abandoned its desire to set up shop in Syria, he noted, but it has slowed the process and vacated certain positions.
To date, the IDF estimates, Iran has spent $17 billion in Syria. But Tehran has concluded that this investment hasn’t produces commensurate results, the officer said.
He also said the IDF had spent a few tens of millions of shekels on the Good Neighbor project, through which it provided humanitarian aid to Syrian villages near the Israeli border.
Hezbollah is working in Syria to upgrade its weapons system and make its missiles more accurate, while Israel is trying to prevent this, the officer continued. The IDF believes Hezbollah is in bad shape, as 2,000 of its fighters have been killed in Syria’s civil war and another 10,000 wounded.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot recently assured the cabinet that the army is operationally prepared to cope with all the threats Israel faces. This was in response to criticism from the military ombudsman, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, who charged that the army was in poor shape.
The IDF views Iran as the most serious threat facing Israel. This threat has several components, including Iran’s consolidation in Syria, its nuclear project, its missile development and its support for Hezbollah and Hamas.
Hezbollah is the second most serious threat, with the Palestinian conflict in third place and organizations like Islamic State and Al-Qaida in fourth.
Gaza and UNRWA
The army has intelligence indicating that the two Israeli civilians missing in the Gaza Strip are both alive and being held by Hamas, the official said.
In addition to civilians Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, Hamas is holding the bodies of two Israel Defense Forces soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.
But the IDF doesn’t believe the missing Israelis should be included in the first stages of a possible cease-fire deal with Hamas-run Gaza. Rather, it says, this issue should be postponed to the later stages.
Nevertheless, in light of both recent developments and Hamas’ situation, Israel’s current assessment is that an escalation in Gaza is more likely than a cease-fire deal. According to the IDF, the Palestinian front is the one most likely to explode.
Though the IDF has pushed the government to make a deal with Hamas, it opposes any deal that doesn’t involve Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The army is also opposed to America’s cessation of funding for UNRWA, the UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees, since it fears that UNRWA’s collapse would worsen the security situation. The IDF argues that Israel has a major interest in enabling Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza to lead decent lives.
The security cabinet has tasked the army with ensuring that no humanitarian crisis develops in Gaza. But the IDF fears this will be mission impossible if no suitable substitute for UNRWA is found.
The senior officer also said the IDF has destroyed 15 cross-border tunnels from Gaza over the past year and is monitoring additional tunnels. The anti-tunnel activity will continue even if a cease-fire deal is signed with Hamas, he added.