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Business as Usual? The War Between Iran and Israel in Syria

Israel and Iran have been sworn enemies since the late 1970s.  Tensions have risen as Iran has supported proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, as a way of confronting Israel indirectly.  In turn, Israel has attacked Iranian targets in an effort to degrade their efforts.  Since 2011, the conflict between the nations has been played out through the Syrian civil war.  This article examines the flow of power across Syria, and how tactics and outlooks have changed over the course of the war.  

Following the end of the 2006 war with Israel, Hezbollah, supported by significant Iranian aid, invested heavily in a military buildup.  Hezbollah acquired rockets and missiles such as Fajr–5 and Fateh–110, with arms transiting into Lebanon through Syria.  Hezbollah can use these weapons to attack Israel, while undermining the legitimate Government of Lebanon, furthering their own objectives as an Iranian proxy force.  These flows of weapons and expertise are enabled by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of both Iran and Hezbollah.

Between 2006-2011 Israel had little option but to tolerate the flow of weapons from Syria to Lebanon.  Any Israeli military action to degrade the flow of weapons and personnel risked a war with Syria, a war which Israel sought to avoid.  Simply put, Israel could not act in a way which provoked a response from their powerful neighbour.

The start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 changed the regional dynamic and offered Israel an opportunity to act.  Assad’s weakness emboldened his Shia allies (upon whose support he became increasingly dependent) to increase weapon transfers.  The war weakened Syria’s military forces, thus reducing the options for the Syrian military to respond to Israeli activity.  This presented Israel with a strategic opportunity to strike targets inside Syria with a lower risk threshold.  Israel was quick to exploit this opportunity to degrade both the Syrian regime and Iranian proxies in this new theatre.

Israel’s Objectives

Israel is officially neutral in the Syrian civil war but opposes the involvement of Iran.  This is because of their history of supplying weapons to organisations who later attacked Israel.  As such, their strategy has been to degrade the proxy forces which attack Israel and to keep the nations powerful neighbours in a weakened state.

Since 2012 the IAF (Israeli Air Force) has bombed targets inside Syria focusing on targets such as long range and antiaircraft missiles.  In a sign of how assertive Israel has become, the IAF has now conducted “more than 200 airstrikes inside Syria against more than 1,000 targets linked to Iran and its proxies”.  The aim of such missions has been twofold: Firstly to reduce the number of weapons flowing to Hezbollah and degrade Iranian proxy forces.  Secondly, Israel has also bombed targets linked directly to President Assad’s regime.  Such attacks would have been largely unthinkable prior to 2011 as the balance of power would be firmly with Syria.  Especially if a wider coalition of Arab nations could be mobilised.

Whilst the Israeli targets were probably pre-planned, in 2011 Israel’s initial attacks into Syria came as a surprise, including to the people of Israel.  This was part of a strategy to deceive Syria’s air defence network.  The Israeli Government took a calculated risk by not providing an alert to its people (so they can run to shelters) risking that Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah, would not retaliate.  Israel did not want its opponents to mistakenly assume that Israel was about to go to war and sought to exploit the opportunity in secret.  Even if Syria had understood that Israel was only launching a tactical raid they would have lost tactical surprise which might have allowed anti-aircraft defences to be better prepared.  Whilst Syria’s air defences remain formidable, and with some exceptions, the Israeli Air Force’s technical edge has allowed the country a relatively free hand to conduct strikes into Syria.

Iran’s Objectives

Iran also seized the strategic opportunities presented by the Syrian civil war.  Iran’s outline objective has been to secure the regime of President Assad.  The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps  has also used the conflict to further establish a network of bases and supply routes to increase the flow of weapons and support to foreign proxy forces, including Hezbollah.  These moves should be seen as an extension of Iran’s wider aim of equipping proxy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan

The Impact of Russia

Russia came to the assistance of President Assad in September 2015.  Since then, Israel has needed to coordinate its strikes in Syria within Russian controlled airspace.  Russia’s objectives have been entirely selfish; in simplistic terms, Russia wishes to maintain and increase its own regional influence and denude America power in the region.  Such a strategy creates friction with both the Israeli and Iranian objectives in the region, but does not come into direct confrontation with either.

The impact of this intervention has been to reduce the radius of Israeli action; from 2011-2015 Israel could strike at the range of its warplanes.  Post the intervention, Israel had to consider Russian activity and air defences.  The flow of the conflict, however, had emboldened the Israeli military to be more assertive.

In April 2020 there was a distinct shift in Israel’s strategic objectives, reflecting the changing power dynamics of the civil war.  In a statement the Israeli Defense Minister, Naftali Bennett, was reported saying we have “moved from blocking Iran’s entrenchment in Syria to forcing it out of there, and we will not stop… We will not allow more strategic threats to grow just across our borders without taking action”.  This shift in emphasis from degrading weapons flow to removing them entirely is one of the consequences of the civil war.

Iranian Escalation Options

In order to escalate the conflict, Iran has needed to develop multiple strike or deterrence options it could use against Israel.  To date, Iran has relied on proxy fighters such as Hezbollah and low-level rocket attacks, together with cyber attacks.  Another, bolder, option would be developing nuclear weapons, but such a strategy will take time and is likely to provoke a direct attack onto Iranian soil.  Iranian tactics will need to evolve to withstand Israeli military action if they are to continue fighting in the region. 

In early April 2020 “Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami unveiled new weaponized drones he said were capable of flying up to 45,000 feet and traveling more than 930 miles away, putting Israel in range”.  Such drones are unlikely be launched from Iran itself.  Instead, Iran will look to establish launch sites in Syria or Iraq.  Likewise, Iran has continued to develop long range missiles and has tested them with proxy forces in Yemen and even linked missiles with drones to attack targets in Iraq.  These provide Iran with deniable options to continue its campaign of destabilisation across the region.

Israel’s ability to assert power into Syria is, in part, because of an Iranian withdrawal.  Some reports have suggested that Iran reduced its presence in Syria in recent months by redeploying some of its soldiers out of its camps there.  This move could be a temporary or even a deception.  Yet, if it is a permanent shift then it can be argued that Israel’s strategy of attrition over 2011-2020 was successful and made the costs of Iran’s military campaign too high to sustain.

Prior to the civil war, Iran had looked to arm others to attack Israel.  It is arguable that Israel’s attacks into Syria have degraded the Iranian network to the extent that the nation can no longer rely on its traditional proxy forces.  Israel has successfully created a security buffer zone; but it cannot be maintained in the long term unless Israel maintains an element of control in the region.

Post Civil War Competition

Another geo-strategic trend is also visible.  With a mix of Russia and Iranian support, coupled with US led strikes onto Daesh, the Syrian civil war is in decline.  But Syria remains a weakened and divided state.  With 5.6 million refugees and 6.2 million internally displaced people, the nation will take at least a decade to rebuild.  The consequences of this is that there is now a competition to become the dominant power in Syria in the post-civil war era.

Iran’s presence in Syria was undermined by both the US strike that killed General Solaimani and the impact of COVID19, which has caused severe internal problems for the Iranian regime.  Despite this apparent withdrawal, Iran is unlikely to give up its grip over Syria easily.  More than 2,000 Iranian troops were killed in Syria and Iran has spent more than $20B on their war effort.  Iran is now looking to maximise the return on its investment and increase its influence in Syria despite resistance from Israel and continuing frictions with Russia.

Iran’s strategic outcome now appears to be to turn Syria from a dependent ally into an Iranian proxy.  In turn, this would allow a free flow of weapons and continued terrorists attacks and maintain Iran as the regionally dominant power.  Iran will also seek to make cash profits from the rehabilitation of Syria; this objective has become more important in the face of wider economic damage caused by COVID-19.

Despite the pressure on Iran from Israel, then, Iran has a strategic rationale to maintain a long-term presence in Syria.  But to do so, Iran will need to further change its tactical outlook and continue to develop the tactics described above.  With both Israel and Iran seeking this outcome, it is likely that Syria will remain a battlefield for the conflict between the nations for the foreseeable future.

To draw some concluding thoughts Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, and Russia all seek to prevent a major escalation in Syria.  Especially one that might deteriorate into a full-scale war.  Yet the post-civil war period will not be business as usual.  Therefore, both Israel and Iran have to calculate their actions carefully.  All sides need be aware how much they can provoke and test their opponents’ willingness whilst protecting vital interests.  At the time of writing, it is not clear who will become the dominant power in the post-civil war era.  What is clear is that when the civil war ends, Syria will not return to business as normal.

Cover photo: Courtesy of Israeli Defence Forces Flickr. Used under license.

Ehud Eilam
Ehud Eilam

Dr Ehud Eilam has been studying Israel's national security for more than 25 years.  He has served in the Israeli military and worked for the Israeli Minister of Defence as a researcher.  Eilam has published six books in the U.S. and U.K.  His latest books is 'Containment in the Middle East" (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).  He lives in Massachusetts and can be contacted at Edudei2014@gmail.com

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