Analysis

With Syria Strikes, Israel Shows It's Willing to Risk a New Front With Iran

With regional tensions intensifying and the northern border heating up, Israel should be eyeing the U.S. to form a decided strategy

An Israeli air force F-15, at the Ovda air force base, on November 8, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

Assuming that the reports from Damascus are accurate, it seems Israel just launched two attacks on Syria within 72 hours. In the first attack the target was a military base currently under construction by Iran south of Damascus, apparently intended for Shi’ite militias under its control. Funding for the construction comes from Syria.

The second attack, on Monday night, was against a target that has not yet been identified. If one can draw lessons from earlier attacks attributed to Israel over the past five years in Syria, the target could have been a military warehouse or a convoy carrying advanced weapons, intended for transfer to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It’s likely that the attack attributed to Israel was also linked to the desire to strengthen the message, actually the threat, that’s mainly addressed to the Iranians. The last two months have seen a deluge of declarations – by the prime minister, the defense minister and a few times the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff – that Israel won’t let Iran entrench itself militarily in Syria.

Israel’s scathing criticism of the accord to reduce friction in southern Syria, signed by the United States, Russia and Jordan, stoked some concern in Washington. Against this backdrop, several officials from the U.S. National Security Council arrived in Israel for meetings in mid-November with political and defense officials. As far as is known, these talks yielded little progress.

At first, Israeli warnings that it would act weren’t taken seriously, since Israel didn’t clarify what its red lines were or with what kind of presence (military or proxies). It also didn’t say which areas it can’t live with (only in the Golan or across Syria?). The frequency of attacks in recent weeks, especially the bombing of the base, is honing the message.

Israel is willing to risk opening a new front with Iran near the Syrian border, as well as accusations of torpedoing the discussions over a diplomatic accord designed to calm down the sides to the Syrian civil war. It’s willing to do this to get Iran to halt its efforts to dig in, and it seems this message is starting to sink in both in Damascus and Tehran, as well as in Washington and Moscow.

The point is that Iran, other than making a few routine declarations condemning Israel, hasn’t yet clarified what it intends to do in response to these focused attacks. In the meantime, the trend is growing escalation. These are no longer mutual warnings over the Iranian nuclear program, which took place up to two years ago, or Israeli complaints about Iranian subversion and assistance to terrorism.

These allegedly are clear steps taken by Israel, no longer directed solely against the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. It’s doubtful whether the Iranians can interpret this in any other way than a poking of a finger in their eye.

Iran has set itself a strategic goal – the consolidation of its influence in Syria and Lebanon and the securing of a land corridor between Tehran and Beirut through Baghdad and Damascus. If Iran concludes that Israeli attacks are foiling this goal, it will have to rethink its policy. Its solution may include an attempt to make Israel pay a price along the Syrian border.

A person very familiar with decision-making in Israel provided a pointed assessment last week. This person described clear regional trends that follow the Assad regime’s victory in the civil war. (Even if the war continues, the regime’s survival seems guaranteed.)

The stabilization of the fighting in Syria gives Iran time and resources to consolidate its military presence in southern Syria as well, not far from the Israeli border. Israel, despite the frequent meetings between Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin, knows that Russia isn’t trying hard to halt the Iranian effort since the Iranians are an important player in maintaining the Assad regime. According to the person familiar with Israeli decision-making, Israel and Iran are thus on a collision course for the medium term.

Thus Israel must very closely coordinate with the Trump administration with a strategic goal in mind, not a tactical one. In other words, Israel shouldn’t focus on issues such as the distance between Shi’ite militias and the Israeli border in the Golan Heights ( between five and 20 kilometers, or three to 12 miles, according to the new agreement that Israel is unhappy with). It should focus on achieving a coordinated policy with the Americans for blocking the entire Iranian strategy.