In a rare admission, Israel has broken its “no-comment” policy on air strikes to confirm that it has carried out over 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria over the last two years. In addition to those attacks, a new report claims that Israel has secretly armed and funded at least 12 Syrian rebel groups in southern Syria since 2013. Israel reportedly stopped its transfer of weapons and money in July, after the Bashar al-Assad regime regained control of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
The major purpose of Israel’s “Operation Good Neighbor,” which reportedly included humanitarian aid to Syrian rebels, was to prevent Iran-affiliated forces from entrenching their position near Israeli borders. More important, however, is the fact that Israel has intensified and broadened its air campaign inside Syria in recent months to target Iranian positions.
Together, these operations indicate a significant shift of Israel’s defence posture, from a limited tolerance of Iranian military presence in Syria and beyond, to zero tolerance – with far-reaching implications for regional peace and stability.
Israel has long been concerned about Iranian activities in Syria close to its border, including attempts to transfer “game-changing” weapons and medium-range missiles to Hezbollah. These security fears grew after the Assad regime recaptured Aleppo in December 2016, supported by Russian air power and Tehran-backed forces, and due in part to Islamic State’s diminishing ability to defeat pro-government troops and seize territory. That victory enabled Iran to expand its focus on other areas and deepen its military presence near Israeli territory.
In response, Israel intensified its air campaign to thwart the entrenchment. A strategic turning point came in April, when Syrian state media said that Israeli warplanes entering Syria from Jordan struck the T4 airbase east of Homs, where the Iranian Revolutionary Guards reportedly operated a drone unit. The assault killed seven IRGC members. Israel neither confirmed nor denied the attack.
In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed his stance that “we believe that there is no place for any Iranian military presence, anywhere in Syria.”
In June, another air strike killed multiple members of Iran-backed militia forces southeast of Abu Kamal. While Israel again declined to respond, many in the region speculated that the Netanyahu government was behind the attack – particularly after a US Central Command spokesman denied US involvement and a US official told CNN that Israel had carried it out.
Israel’s more aggressive “maximalist” security strategy towards Iranian presence in its wider neighbourhood is driven by three major factors.
First, Israel does not seem to be entirely convinced of the Trump administration’s willingness to take on Iran in Syria, nor can it rely on Russia to keep Iran in check and secure Israeli interests in its backyard. Trump has been notoriously reluctant to allocate American resources to Syria and has said on various occasions that he wants US forces out of the country “very soon.”
Partly due to Israeli pressure, however, Washington is adopting a new approach that emphasizes the US desire for Iran’s complete exit from Syria. Most recently, the Trump administration reportedly agreed to an “indefinite” military effort and a systematic diplomatic campaign to accomplish American goals against Damascus.
Second, the strategy of opposing Iranian military presence anywhere in Syria resonates strongly with the Sunni Arab bloc in the region and can bring Israel closer to Tehran’s other nemeses, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These emerging ties, which Netanyahu calls the silver lining of the “bad” Iran deal, are very important to Israel, partly because the Jewish state would need help from its regional neighbours if it were to engage in a war against Iran.
Third, the Israeli security establishment has a deep-rooted belief that Iranian revisionism and “expansionism” knows no limits and that the Islamic Republic is hellbent on creating an “aggressive empire” in the Middle East and beyond. The apocalyptic rhetoric of Iranian hardliners vowing “annihilation” of Israel coupled with the much-vaunted tour of Iran-backed paramilitary commanders along Israel’s border with Lebanon and Syria have stoked these fears.
In response to Israel’s harder line against the Iranian military presence in Syria, Tehran has reportedly transferred ballistic missiles to its Shi’ite proxies in Iraq in recent months. “The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters in August, adding that “the number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.” A few days after this report – which both Tehran and Baghdad dismissed – Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that when it comes to “Iranian threats,” Israel will not be limiting itself “just to the Syrian territory.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s economy is expected to deteriorate further as Washington ratchets up sanctions following Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran. Given the spiraling circle of hostility between Iran and Israel, the more hardline elements of the Iranian leadership might be tempted to seek external diversions from internal problems. None of it bodes well for the prospects of peace and stability in the Middle East, even as the Syrian conflict seems to be grinding to an end.