Israeli Officials: Iran to Escalate Responses to Strikes in Syria

Its struggling economy and the war in Yemen has led Iran to reduce presence in Syria, but it hasn't given up its desire to solidify its control there

Israeli soldiers near Mount Hermon on the Syria border, January 20, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Officials in the defense establishment expect that the division of control in Syria ahead of the end of the civil war in the country, especially with the United States withdrawal, is encouraging Iran to respond more aggressively to Israeli attacks.

The assessment is that although Iran’s economic situation and its involvement in the war in Yemen has led it to reduce its presence in Syria, it has not given up its desire to solidify its control there. However, defense officials think that this exchange between Israel and Iran is over and the potential for an escalation into war is low.

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Last year Israel noticed that the number of Iranian forces in Syria was reduced by half. However, Iran has not given up its dream of control, and that 2019 will be decisive in this regard. Now that the Syrian civil war is ending, control of the country will be divided in accordance with the will of the powers operating there – Russia, Turkey and Iran. The assessment is that Iran will alter its method of operations in Syria in anticipation of this division.

The Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and its commander, Qassem Soleimani, see Iranian control in Syria as a key to Iran becoming a regional power. The economic crisis in Iran and domestic criticism are making it difficult for the Quds Force to spend too many resources on the fighting in Syria, and Soleimani was not successful in establishing Iran’s power in the country as he had planned.

Tehran also suffered some blows to its image with Israel’s theft of its nuclear archive, the downing of its drone early last year and the repeated attacks on the Iranian weapons convoys. Defense officials think that the Iran’s difficulties and its desire to entrench itself in Syria are what led it to fire on Mount Hermon on Sunday, with the aim of deterring Israel from attacking Iranian targets in Syria. The Israel Defense Forces is preparing for more possible Iranian responses, whether direct or through proxies.

Nevertheless, defense officials believe that the likelihood of war remains low and that the current round of friction has come to an end. However, Israel’s choice to act and attack in accordance with its between-wars strategy has explosive potential, officials say. Any move that crosses a certain line could bring about an escalation, even if the sides don’t really want it.

The IDF distinguishes between the use of anti-aircraft fire in Syrian territory in response to an attack by the Israel Air Force, and missile fire into Israeli territory aimed at hitting civilian targets. The army said that fire into Israel will not be ignored, and thus the missile that was fired at Mount Hermon demanded a firm response, in accordance with the patterns that have been established over the past two years. Defense officials say that even Iran understands that missile fire is an exceptional act that will lead to escalation.

Although the missile fire on the Hermon came very soon after Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi became chief of general staff, the assessment is that it was not an attempt to test the new army chief. Nor was it an attempt to rewrite the rules of conduct between the parties that were set during Gadi Eisenkot’s tenure.

The defense establishment has no plans to stop its efforts to prevent Iran from entrenching itself in Syria, while the IDF is preparing for the expected strengthening of the Syrian army. The assessment is that in five years Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army will be stronger and more advanced than it was before the outbreak of the civil war. For one thing, the Syrian army will benefit from advanced Russian weapons. The Syrian anti-aircraft system deployed yesterday, the Pantsir-S1, is relatively antiquated; in the future IDF pilots may have to deal with much more advanced systems.