Analysis

Buoyed by Iran and Russia, Assad Gains Confidence to Test Israel

Circumstances in Syria have changed; Assad's government and its allies may dictate new rules of the game with Israel in the north

A Syrian missile launched in military maneuvers, December 20, 2011
A Syrian missile launched in military maneuvers, December 20, 2011 REUTERS

Recent developments on the northern front are not encouraging. Last week, Syria shot an SA-5 anti-aircraft missile at an Israeli Air Force plane on a routine reconnaissance flight over Lebanon. The air force responded by bombing the anti-aircraft battery’s radar. Then, on Saturday, rockets were fired from Syria at the Golan Heights.

When added to the fact that Syria and Iran have been trading threats with Israel, these incidents might indicate an attempt by the Syrian government and its allies to dictate new rules of the game to Israel in the north.

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Israel has been the one who generally dictated the rules to Damascus and Hezbollah. It set red lines – preventing the smuggling of sophisticated arms to Lebanon and responding to all fire at Israel from Syrian territory – and generally enforced them.

The Syrian government usually absorbed these blows, pretending the spit was rain. Either it completely ignored Israeli attacks on arms convoys in its territory, or it made do with uttering empty threats. Hezbollah, in contrast, managed to set its own red lines by responding to an attack on an arms convoy that had already entered Lebanon (in 2014) and to assassinations of Hezbollah officials which it attributed to Israel.

But, the circumstances have changed over the past few months. Syria’s Assad regime has recovered some of its self-confidence thanks to its military victories against the Syrian rebels, achieved with massive help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Moreover, Iran wants to enjoy the fruits of these victories, however limited they are, by acquiring economic assets in Syria and increasing its military presence there. Currently, that presence consists mainly of the Iranian Revolutionary guards and Shi’ite militias.

Additionally, in early September, a precision missile factory in Syria was bombed, allegedly by Israel. That was a major blow to the regime, and Syrian President Bashar Assad threatened to respond.

Last week’s anti-aircraft fire can be seen both as Syrian retaliation and as an attempt to deter Israel by warning that its planes will no longer enjoy the broad freedom of action they have exploited in recent years. Then, a few days later, came the rocket attack in the Golan.

Though fighting between the regime and rebel forces has recently resumed in that area, the rockets were fired very early in the morning, at a time when no real fighting was occurring. If this was “stray fire,” as the Israel Defense Forces termed earlier cases in which Syrian rockets and mortars landed in Israel, it was of a highly unusual nature.

Thus, it’s reasonable to think this was a Syrian or Iranian trial balloon, which was meant to deter Israel. After all, it occurred just two days after Iran’s chief of staff visited Damascus, and during this visit, both countries threated to respond to any Israeli military move.

Nor has Israel kept mum. The prime minister and defense minister have both warned of the growing presence of Iranian forces and Shi’ite militias in southern Syria and threatened action against them.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amiram Levine wrote in an op-ed in Yedioth Ahronoth on Sunday that Israel’s harsh language is unnecessary and is liable to lead the country into a military conflict it presumably doesn’t want. Levine’s criticism isn’t wholly apolitical; he campaigned unsuccessfully to become the Labor Party’s chairman earlier this year. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of sense in what he says.

Until now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed the Syrian front cautiously and wisely, upholding Israeli interests while keeping the situation from deteriorating into war. But the new circumstances raise the stakes of every Israeli move and require extra caution.

While Netanyahu has emphasized the flaws and the dangers of the world’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, senior defense officials are more focused on developments in Syria. They are especially worried about Iran’s growing proximity to the border in the Golan Heights.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has demanded an increase in the defense budget in response to Iran’s moves in Syria and the possibility that the nuclear deal will collapse. For the same reason, he wants to accelerate the IDF’s timetable for arms acquisitions.

This is a well thought out position that has some logic to it. But, it could also be interpreted in Tehran as indicating that Israel has plans for an offensive operation sometime in the future.