Analysis |

Israel's Main Goal in Syria: Curbing Iran's Influence in the Golan Heights

Shi'ite militias, Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards: Israel increasingly concerned with Iran's influence on the Syrian border.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Israeli soldiers take part in a military training in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border, March 22, 2017.
Israeli soldiers take part in a military training in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border, March 22, 2017.Credit: JALAA MAREY/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The future of public broadcasting in Israel, the possibility of early elections and the police probes of the prime minister and his family aren’t the only issues of importance to the state these days. Israel may be tangential to regional developments, but it could be dragged into them at any time, as a result of miscalculation — it wouldn’t be the first time that the scent of an approaching election has affected military decisions — or for other reasons.

The incident last Friday, in which Syria fired an anti-aircraft missile at Israeli warplanes after Israeli airstrikes in Syria, reminded the Israeli media about the ongoing civil war in that country.

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That war is the main, but not the only, arena for the larger struggle among forces in the region. The two main sides are the Iranian-led Shi’ite Muslim axis and the Saudi-led alliance of conservative Sunni Muslim regimes. Tehran has an advantage on nearly every front. Israel is a secondary player. Its focus is on trying to curb Iranian influence on the front that is most important to it, the border with Syria in the Golan Heights.

An Iraqi man looks at a destroyed tomb of the Prophet Jonah (Nabi Younes) in the eastern side of Mosul, Iraq, March 9, 2017. Credit: Suhaib Salem, Reuters

Tehran has reason to be satisfied with trends on several fronts. In the wake of the fall of Aleppo to government forces, President Bashar Assad has the upper hand in Syria. The Saudi fight against Houthi rebels in Yemen has failed so far, and Riyadh finds itself stuck in a fatal swamp. The international coalition in Iraq is close to retaking Mosul from the Islamic State organization, as the Iraqi government and Shi’ite militias prepare to divide the spoils and the Iranians enjoy increasing legitimacy to the point that the United States has begun to train openly Shi’ite Iraqi militias, claiming that they are “positive” while ignoring their Iranian ties.

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Other Arab states — from Oman, which helps smuggle Iranian arms, to Jordan, which sent a conciliatory delegation headed by the speaker of the parliament to Tehran — don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in the Middle East.

Israel is particularly troubled by developments in Syria and Lebanon. There are reports of Shi’ite militias in the Syrian Golan Heights (although still relatively far from the Israeli border). Members of Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and pro-Assad militias routinely infiltrate into the northern Golan Heights. Tehran and the Assad regime are discussing a long-term lease of space in the Latakia port to Iran, which has also delivered to Hezbollah underground weapons factories that it established.

Israel was forced to admit its airstrikes in Syria last week after the Arrow air defense system intercepted the Syrian missile that was fired at Israeli jets. The policy of ambiguity returned a few days later, when Jerusalem refused to comment on Syrian reports that an Israeli drone strike killed a local combatant in the northern Golan Heights. But remarks by the prime minister, the defense minister, the army chief of staff (twice), the Mossad chief and the outgoing GOC Northern Commander received widespread coverage in Israeli media outlets.

The Israeli message, despite the Russian foreign ministry summoning the Israeli ambassador for clarifications, was firm. We will continue to attacking arms convoys in Syria as needed, in order to keep Hezbollah from obtaining weapons, including rockets, missiles, drones and chemical weapons. (The organization is not known to have expressed an interest in the latter.)

The reserve-duty generals Amos Yadlin and Giora Eiland argued in two separate articles in the Yedioth Ahronoth daily this week that foiling arms smuggling is secondary to Israel’s main goal of thwarting Iran’s and Hezbollah’s presence in the Golan Heights.

Yadlin, presumably reflecting the position of the military establishment, believes “a reassessment is needed” of the benefits of the effort to keep weapons out of the hands of Hezbollah (by striking convoys and arms depots in Syria) versus the risk of escalation posed by these actions. Yadlin said that while Israel should uproot the terror infrastructure in the Golan Heights, the most important strategic goal in the north is to prevent Iran from establishing a base in Syria, using its contacts in Moscow and in Washington.

>> Israel's growing tensions with Syria, Lebanon and Hamas leave little room for maneuvering | Analysis >>

Israel remains skeptical, assuming the Syrian dictator will have to repay the Iranians in kind. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen described Iran this week as “the primary challenge for the security establishment, with or without the nuclear deal.”

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, speaking at the same event, focused on the northern front. He said that in a future war with Hezbollah, Israel could target Lebanese state institutions, without making a distinction between the government in Beirut and the Shi’ite organization. It looks like a planned Israeli trend – renewing threats to wreak widespread destruction in Lebanon in order to deter Hezbollah from operating on the border in wake of its growing confidence based on Shi’ite successes in Syria.

On paper, Hamas will soon be a less anti-Semitic and rejectionist organization. Credit: Reuters

Will this verbal campaign be effective? A Lebanese researcher, who recently met with Israeli colleagues abroad, asserted that Israel should sharpen its message. Just stressing the potential scope of destruction, he explained, would deter Lebanese citizens from supporting provocations by Hezbollah that could drag the parties into war.

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