Even after the two latest airstrikes attributed to Israel in Syria, on April 9 and April 29, and despite Iran’s threats of revenge, there has been no sign of any change in Israeli policy.
The person spearheading this activist policy in the north is Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, whose position is backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Reportedly, no cabinet minister has voiced opposition to the IDF’s stance, despite the risks it entails.
According to the defense establishment’s analysis, Iran continues to send advanced weapons systems to Syria. But these arms are no longer necessarily slated to be passed on to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Instead, they are being used to bolster Iran’s military deployment in Syria, and may even be meant to prepare an Iranian military response against Israel.
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For now, however, Tehran seems to be debating over the nature of its promised retaliation against Israel, and even more, over its timing.
One theory being advanced is that Tehran may be reluctant to respond prior to Lebanon’s parliamentary elections this coming Sunday and U.S. President Donald Trump’s expected announcement on May 12 as to whether his country is quitting the nuclear agreement with Iran. Israel’s announcement of the theft of Iran’s nuclear archive by Mossad agents is likely to increase Iranian leaders’ embarrassment.
The heads of Israel’s defense establishment say their forceful, resolute policy is driven by an urgent need to block Iran’s next moves and show Tehran that Israel won’t accept a deepening of its presence in Syria. Without such decisive steps, they argue, Iran will be able, within a relatively short time, to set up a network of surface-to-surface missiles, drones and aerial defense systems in Syria that will be under Iran’s exclusive control and complement the armaments it has already given Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israeli officials also believe the Trump Administration is reconsidering its decision to remove American forces from Syria. For the past few years, America has had about 2,000 special-forces troops and military advisers in Syria to participate in the fight against the Islamic State and help the Kurdish forces operating in eastern and northern Syria. Trump has said repeatedly that he intends to withdraw these forces, but so far, implementation of that decision has been postponed.
France, Saudi Arabia and Israel all recently recommended that America defer withdrawing its forces, arguing that a withdrawal would merely bolster Iran’s hegemony in Syria and increase Russian and Iranian influence. Several people well-versed in the ongoing talks with the Trump Administration said Trump is likely to approve keeping the U.S. troops there for another six months.
In a conversation with journalists at the Pentagon on Monday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said that America should continue its efforts to defeat the Islamic State. “What we don’t want to do, now that we are on the cusp of winning on the battlefield in terms of taking down the physical caliphate, the geographic caliphate, we do not want to simply pull out before the diplomats have won the peace,” he said. “So you win the fight, and then you win the peace.”