Analysis

Syria Deal Puts Iran Too Close to Israel’s Borders

Israeli defense figures are troubled by the fact that Russia and the U.S. seem unwilling to take genuine measures to kick Iran out of southern Syria

FILE PHOTO: This photo provided on Friday Oct. 20, 2017 by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, shows Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looks into binoculars as he visits the Iranian military near Aleppo, Syria.
FILE PHOTO: Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looks into binoculars as he visits the Iranian military near Aleppo, Syria on October 20 2017. Uncredited/AP

Israel made no official response on Sunday to the trilateral agreement between Russia, America and Jordan on a cease-fire in southern Syria. The agreement, signed over the weekend, requires all foreign forces, including the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Shi’ite militias operated by Iran, to leave Syria.

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But it does not set deadlines, and secret understandings among the parties provide for the IRGC and Iran’s proxy forces to withdraw only a short distance from the Israeli border, at least in the near term. Israeli defense figures are troubled by this and by the fact that the superpowers seem unwilling to take genuine measures to kick Iran out of Syria in general, and southern Syria in particular.

Israel Channel 2 News reported Sunday night that army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Eisenkot secretly flew to Brussels on Thursday to meet with Gen. Curtiss Scaparrotti, head of the U.S. army’s European Command. The meeting dealt mainly with Iranian moves in the Middle East, and especially Syria.

Two men, not specified which group of rebels, ride a motorcycle towards an abandoned UN base at Syria's Quneitra border crossing between Syria and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, Monday, Nov. 28, 2016. The Israeli military says it has carried out an air strike in Syria on a building used by Islamic State militants to attack Israeli forces. The overnight air strike Monday targeted an abandoned United Nations building that Israel says was used as a base by the militants. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Ariel Schalit / AP

Eisenkot and Scaparrotti had met just two weeks earlier at an international gathering of chiefs of staff hosted by Washington. A second meeting so soon afterward presumably reflects the extent of Israel’s concern over recent developments.

Over the weekend, the BBC, quoting Western intelligence sources, reported that satellite photos show the Iranians are secretly building a base near Damascus. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Saturday that Israel won’t allow Syria to become “a forward base” for “the Shi’ite axis.”

The site of an Iranian military compound in Syria, January, 2017.
Airbus, McKenzie Intelligence Services via BBC

Israel’s repeated statements to this effect — which have been made, inter alia, in recent meetings with American, Russian and European politicians — attest to the growing concern of Israeli military and political leaders about Iran’s moves in Syria. Tehran seeks to reap the fruits of its support for the Assad regime, which has gained the upper hand in Syria’s civil war. Israel is presumably trying to warn Iran that it would view certain moves as crossing a red line and would consider military action to thwart them.

But the trilateral agreement provides only a partial answer to Israel’s concerns. Its attached map, which has not yet been published, specifies how far away the IRGC and the Shi’ite militias, including Hezbollah, must stay from the Israeli border. In September, Haaretz reported that Israel wanted them kept 50 to 60 kilometers away, but the Russians initially agreed to only five kilometers.

The new map reflects a complicated compromise. In most areas it will apparently keep the Shi’ites 20 kilometers from the border, but in some places the distance will shrink to just five kilometers. Add in the fact that no timetable for removing foreign forces from Syria is even visible on the horizon, and Israel’s concerns are understandable.

The tension with Iran is joined by the developing crisis in Lebanon over the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is still in Riyadh. Senior Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun, have accused Saudi Arabia over the last few days of holding Hariri against his will, and Hezbollah has accused Riyadh of trying to foment a war between it and Israel. Sunday evening, Hariri gave an interview from Riyadh to the Lebanese television station Al-Mustaqbal in which he denied he was being detained by the Saudis and promised to return to Lebanon in a few days.

High alert in the south

A picture taken from the eastern outskirts of Gaza Strip shows an Israeli drilling machine stationed on the Israeli side of the border on November 12, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP

Though the situation in the north is so far confined to an exchange of verbal threats, on the Gaza border, the IDF is genuinely on high alert. It has beefed up its forces along the border in preparation for the possibility that Islamic Jihad might try to carry out an attack to avenge Israel’s destruction of a cross-border attack tunnel two weeks ago, in which at least 12 of the group’s operatives were killed.

On Saturday, the army coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, warned that Islamic Jihad was “playing with fire” by planning a revenge attack. He threatened that if such an attack took place, Israel’s response would also target the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, and he urged Islamic Jihad’s headquarters in Damascus to “take matters into your own hands,” or in other words, to restrain the group’s military wing in Gaza and the West Bank.

“There are those who still amuse themselves these days by trying to renew attacks against Israel. We will take a very firm stance against anyone who tries to attack us or attacks us from any area,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday.

Islamic Jihad responded with a threat of its own, calling the Israeli statements “a declaration of war.”