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Israel Broadens Strikes Against Iran in Syria, and Russia Doesn’t Seem to Mind

Attacks on weapons shipments and Iranian interests in Syria don't appear to be of much concern to Assad either, and the Americans have more pressing matters to attend to – including the NSO scandal and Israel's response to it

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Smoke rises in the countryside of Damascus, following what Syria said was an Israeli airstrike, two weeks ago.
Smoke rises in the countryside of Damascus, following what Syria said was an Israeli airstrike, two weeks ago.Credit: Omar Sanadiki/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel’s alleged aerial strike in Syria on Monday would be the seventh action of its kind in about a month. According to international media reports from Syria, Israel attacked a missile factory located up north in Homs province, and additional targets near the northwestern city of Tartus. The attack was preceded by several strikes to prevent weapons smuggling and activity along the border in the Golan Heights.

As noted here last month, there has been a real uptick in strikes in Syria, as part of the so-called “war between the wars.” Israel has two main goals in Syria: preventing weapons smuggling from Iran to Hezbollah and striking at other Iranian interests, such as Shi’ite militia bases deep inside the country and locals working for Iran and Hezbollah, near the Golan border.

The increased number of assaults may partially reflect a combination of circumstances. At least two attacks were scheduled for the afternoon, exploiting a narrow window of opportunity to thwart attempts to smuggle weapons. That operation attests to the availability of precise intelligence, which allows for a precision strike in a given period of time.

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It may also be convenient to concentrate attacks before the onset of winter and thick clouds, which undermine the effectiveness of aerial bombing. Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Tuesday that Israel will not allow Hezbollah and additional Iranian proxies to “equip themselves with means of combat that will undermine our superiority in the region,” in a speech at a ceremony to dedicate the new Rafael Advanced Defense Systems plant in Shlomi.

On the strategic level, it is evident – over two weeks after the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Sochi – that Russia is not especially concerned about an Israeli attack on Iranian targets. The fact that some of the most recent attacks were carried out relatively close to Russian forces, near Homs and especially near Tartus, may indicate preliminary Israeli consideration for the safety of Russian soldiers. And although Israel is apparently overstating the great desire of Syrian President Bashir Assad’s regime to be released from the Iranian embrace, it is doubtful whether the attacks are of much concern to the government in Damascus.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Kremlin, in September.Credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

The United States is almost totally absent from this picture. In late October, Shi’ite militias, which receive instructions from Iran, perpetrated a drone attack on the Al-Tanf U.S. military base in eastern Syria. This week, in a similar attack also attributed to Iran, the home of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who embraces an independent policy regarding Iran, was bombed.

In both cases, the Americans have sufficed thus far with condemnations. While Israel is demonstrating force in Syria, some of which clearly stems from frustration at its inability to influence the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the great powers, the Americans have more urgent problems.

Another country waiting for a reaction from the United States is Egypt. President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi is expecting greater assistance from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden and is concerned about the Democratic Party’s criticism of his regime’s human rights violations. That concern looks like the main reason why Egypt is touting its longstanding close relationship with Israel in a bid to raise Cairo’s stock in Washington.

On Sunday, the periodic meeting of the joint military committee of the Israel Defense Forces and the Egyptian army took place in Sinai. The Israeli delegation included two generals – the head of the General Staff Operations Directorate, Maj. Gen. Oded Basiuk, and the head of the Strategy Division, Maj. Gen. Tal Kalman. In an exceptional gesture, the Egyptians agreed to publish an official photo from the meeting. During the talks themselves, it was decided that Israel would allow Egypt to deploy more troops in Rafah, in a (consensual) violation of the security appendix to the peace agreement between the two countries.

Israeli soldiers take part in a military drill near the border with Syria, in August.Credit: Jalaa Marey/AFP

The reinforcement of the Egyptian forces is meant to serve two purposes: assistance in the fight against the Egyptian branch of the ISIS (which is worrying Egypt) and Israel’s hope for a certain increase in Egypt’s supervision of events in the Gaza Strip.

Egypt is busy with vigorous mediation efforts between Israel and Hamas, in an attempt to stabilize the cease-fire in Gaza. But at the same time, it is also allowing the substantial transport of smuggled goods, including dual-use construction materials, which can be used for both civilian and military purposes, that Israel will not allow to be brought into Gaza from its territory.

Souring on NSO

The NSO scandal is also on the agenda in the contacts between Israel and the United States. The defense establishment had hoped that a series of discussions between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and senior French officials would cool their anger at the use of the company’s Pegasus spyware by the Moroccan intelligence services for surveillance against French VIPs. It seems the Israeli promises calmed the French to some degree, but then came the punitive actions by the Americans, who imposed direct sanctions against the company, on the grounds that NSO had acted “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. move was followed by a report that Pegasus was also used for the hacking and surveillance of cell phones belonging to activists in three of the six Palestinian NGOs recently outlawed by Israel, which claimed they are connected to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist group. One gets the impression that the Biden administration is losing patience with Israeli behavior that would not have been on the radar of the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Washington’s growing criticism of Israel stems from two related positions: reservations about steps regarding Israeli occupation in the territories, and dissatisfaction with human rights violations in general, and cyber hacking in particular.

A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group Credit: Amir Cohen/Reuters

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Israel will lobby the U.S. administration to cancel the sanctions against NSO. It is uncertain whether all the organizations involved share that approach. The Defense Ministry, at least, is apparently not enthusiastic about continuing the efforts to back and provide cover for the spyware firm.

That position could be problematic, because it’s already known by now that the Israeli administration, during the previous government’s tenure, often served as an intermediary between NSO and dubious regimes, before those countries purchased its products and services. And still, some of those officials involved are reaching the conclusion that the time has come to reduce to a minimum the official Israeli connection to the company, whose reputation and activity is now viewed negatively in many countries and by several governments.

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