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Israel's Battle With Iran in Syria Is Back in High Gear and Far From Over

Recent developments cast Israel's self-aggrandizement regarding military action against Tehran in Syria in a dubious light

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Missiles over the international airport in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019.
Missiles over the international airport in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019.Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel’s conflict with Iran, playing out in Syria, is back in high gear. That is what Sunday's events on the Syrian-Israeli border mean.

There was a strike on Damascus, then, unusually, a surface-to-surface missile was shot from Syria toward Israeli territory and was intercepted by an Iron Dome battery. Following this, the air force mounted another attack during the night, hitting a number of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' targets in Syria.

These recent developments cast the self-aggrandizement of the Israeli leadership, regarding their achievements in Syria against Iran, in a dubious light.

A video of one of the strikes.

>> Israel's extensive strike against Iran in Syria: What we knowIsrael signals: Russia doesn't grant Iran immunity

The Israeli army can claim considerable gains in its efforts to block Iran from establishing a military presence in Syria, and the arms-smuggling to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syrian territory. The commander of the Al Quds Brigade in the Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, apparently planned for his moves in Syria to advance much faster, but was thwarted by the Israeli activity.

But contrary to the erroneous impression one might get from articles in the press and official Israeli statements over the past few weeks, the story is far from over.

The seasoned general has been fighting Israel for decades and doesn’t seem to have abandoned his efforts. After the Iranians were bruised in the clash between the parties last May, Soleimani rethought his tactics and waited for the right time to resume the battle.

Bradley Burston describes his visit to the West Bank with settler leader Daniella WeissCredit: Haaretz

Now, as the Assad regime stabilizes its control over Syria, the struggle is to determine the rules of engagement on the northern front. Iran would like to continue smuggling arms to Hezbollah while building army bases and deploying weapons systems in Syria.

Israel wants to foil that. The extraordinary fact that a mid-range surface-to-surface missile was fired from Syria toward Israel does not attest that Iran is winning the battle. However, it does show that the conflict is far from over.

All this would probably have happened in any case. However, it is possible that the recent Israeli statements hastened the process to some degree.

It began with a statement by the outgoing chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, to the New York Times about the thousands of Iranian targets that the air force has attacked in recent years. It continued with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to publicly take responsibility for the strike near Damascus about 10 days ago. The security brass took no part in the decision to break Israel’s policy of ambiguity, and they were not pleased by it.

Iron dome missile launch captured by skiers on Israel's Hermon

The Israel Defense Forces formally cast the responsibility for the rocket shot at Israel Sunday on the Revolutionary Guards. Following the rocket fire, a number of military sites affiliated with Iran around Damascus were bombed – arms depots, a training camp and an intelligence camp. Several Syrian aerial defense batteries that had fired missiles toward Israeli jets were also bombed and sustained damage.

On Monday morning, Russia announced that four Syrian soldiers had been killed in the attack.

The Israeli raid, yet again, exposed the false promises Moscow made just six months ago. Then, in the context of Assad’s forces regaining the Syrian Golan from the rebels, Russia promised Israel (in exchange for not intervening on behalf of the rebels) to keep Iranian forces far away from the Syrian-Israeli border (various figures were discussed: 60 kilometers, 70, up to 100).

In time, it turned out that the Russian promise didn’t encompass the area of the capital, Damascus, nor were they exactly keeping their word in the Golan. When the Assad regime returned to southern Syria, the Israeli government presented the accord with Russia as a major achievement. Now, for some reason, Israel is silent on the matter.

The media has been chattering a great deal about the escalation up north being the first practical test of the new chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi. But the role of the prime minister is more important here.

Netanyahu confronts the challenge while sitting at the head of a government that isn’t quite functioning anymore, with the parties constituting it busy sparring as they gear up for the general election. Netanyahu is concurrently fulfilling the roles of prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister; he has hardly any ministers left with whom he can consult and on whom he can rely.

Meanwhile, floating above it all, even above the approaching election, is the peril of charges against him, and his open clash with the attorney general. These are far from the ideal conditions for handling an escalating security crisis.

The extensive attack on Syria on Sunday night does not portend war. At this time, the Iranians don’t seem to want war either. One of the main reasons underlying Soleimani’s failure last spring was underestimating Israel’s abilities. The Iranians don’t seem to have fully grasped that moving the fight to the border with Israel would place them in an inferior situation regarding the superiority of Israel's air force and the quality of intelligence available to it. It is hard to believe they’re heading for a frontal confrontation now.

As Netanyahu publicly stated, the continuing Israeli attacks signal that the government is determined to maintain some degree of freedom of action by Israeli jets in Syrian skies, at least in Syria’s center and south. No Israeli attacks have been reported in Syria’s northwest, near the Russian bases, since the Ilyushin spy plane was shot down by Syrian fire last September.

Most of the signs point to continued aerial attacks on Syria, at varying intensities, in the coming weeks and months. The Russians could potentially stop it, if they manage to force binding agreements on all the parties involved. Nobody is so much as mentioning the United States anymore. Even though the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria has been held up, President Donald Trump has clearly shown that he has no real interest in what's going on there.

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