Analysis |

Israeli Army Sees Widening Cracks in Syria-Russia-Iran Alliance

South Syria rarely makes it to Israeli headlines, but the flames there are still high. ‘The truth is there are no more civilians there,’ says one Israeli security official

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli army forces in tanks at the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, July 3, 2020.
Israeli army forces in tanks at the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, July 3, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Israeli army will hold an extensive general staff exercise in the near future, which will be attended by thousands of reservists, as decided by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, despite the coronavirus and concerns over mass infection of soldiers. The army will take a series of safety measures whilst applying lessons learned from the previous outbreak of infection. The IDF still sees some chance of a military conflagration next year in the northern area and the exercise will deal with the General Staff’s preparations for this possibility.

In the meantime, more than 90 days have gone by since a high alert was declared in the Northern Command, for fear of a Hezbollah retaliation from the Lebanese border. The organization is still looking to avenge the death of one of its former activists, a driver who was annexed to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in a bombardment that was attributed to Israel at the Damascus airport at the end of July. Israeli intelligence assesses that Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah still seeks an eye for an eye, the killing of a single IDF soldier, to maintain the deterrence equation with Israel. The preparedness remains in effect, in parallel with the talks between Israel and Lebanon about establishing the maritime borders between the two countries.

A poster depicting Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is seen in Marwahin, southern Lebanon October 13, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Aziz Taher

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Another attack attributed to Israel was reported on the Syrian border, in the area of Quneitra in the Golan Heights. The attack was aimed at a position being used in tandem by the First Corps of the Syrian army and the local Hezbollah command. The IDF has issued explicit warnings to the First Corps commanders, because of their connections with Iran and Hezbollah. Southern Syria hardly ever makes the headlines in the Israeli media, but the reality there is still stormy, despite the return of control there into Syrian President Bashar Assad’s hands in the summer of 2018. Every month 50 to 60 deaths are recorded in various incidents between the Syrian army and local rebel groups. The large rebel organizations that operated in the area in the past have been dismantled and their leaders have fled but, in their stead, new local organizations have sprung up for self-defense.

“The truth is that there are no civilians left in southern Syria,” says a security source in Israel. “In every home there is heavy weaponry, which is intended for survival, for protecting the family.” Israel cut its ties in the Syrian Golan Heights with the return of the regime, in an arrangement put together by Russia. In a place where the IDF had operated in the past a field hospital for the benefit of the inhabitants, this past summer a local cell operated by Iran tried to lay landmines for vehicles passing near the border. Four members of the cell were shot and killed. The power struggles in the south are continuing, only Israel no longer has a horse in this race.

A Russian Military convoy drives near the village of Ein Diwar in Syria's northeastern Hasakeh province on October 11, 2020. Credit: Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP

The Israeli army is seeing, more than in the past, cracks in the three-way alliance of interests between the regime and its two major patrons, Russia and Iran. President Assad is not pleased with the way the Syrian air defense batteries are being destroyed every time there is a clash between Israel and Iran on Syrian territory. For a long time now Russia, which two years ago was furious at Israel when Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed an Ilyushin plane and killed 15 Russian crew members in northern Syria, has not bothered to complain about attacks attributed to Israel.

After that incident, the Russians threatened to hand S-300 air defense systems over to the regime. In fact, the batteries are still manned by Russian soldiers and are subordinate to commanders of the Russian Army in Syria. This approach is apparently connected to the competition between Russia and Iran over the extent of influence on the regime and the ability to win large projects for rehabilitating the infrastructure in the country, if the war ever ends.

Iran, more so than Hezbollah, has open accounts with the United States and Israel. Surprises are always possible but less than two weeks before the presidential election in the United States, it appears that Iran – like the rest of the countries in the region – prefers to wait for the results there. President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival former Vice President Joe Biden have both stated their desire to go back to the nuclear agreement, from which Trump withdrew in May of 2018. It is not worth it for Tehran to risk unilateral moves before the state of America is clarified.

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