July 3, 2024

IntelBrief: Regional Conflict Intersects in Syria

AP Photo/Hussein Malla

Bottom Line Up Front

  • As host of the key transit routes and operations Tehran uses to support Lebanese Hezbollah, Syria is a key battlefield in the burgeoning regional conflagration.
  • Israel has intensified its strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah-linked targets in Syria since the October 7 Hamas attack.
  • Syria has not joined other Iran-led Axis of Resistance partners in attacking Israel directly because of the weakness of the Assad regime as well as political differences with Hamas.
  • Despite its expanding strategic relations with Tehran, Russia has urged the Assad regime not to engage against Israel.

The regional crisis touched off by Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel has begun to engulf Syria, a longtime ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran, even as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has sought to keep its forces out of direct conflict against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Syria has always been the main conduit for Tehran's arms supplies to Hezbollah, but the Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Syria has been heightened since 2013, when Iran deployed military personnel and thousands of allied paramilitaries to help the Assad regime prevail against the armed rebellion that began in 2011. Iranian weapons parts bound ultimately for Hezbollah are transported into Syria while others are assembled there, according to Syrian officials speaking to Western journalists.

Israel has for years been striking Iran-backed militant groups in Syria and elsewhere, but what was a low-level campaign has escalated into a more intensive confrontation as Israel seeks to block the flow of Iranian weaponry to Hezbollah. The Iran-backed group has been engaged in cross-border clashes with the IDF since October 8 in an effort to divert Israeli troops from their offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, but the exchanges intensified and expanded in May and June. Israel is threatening all-out war against Hezbollah if the group refuses to move its elite forces off the informal Israel-Lebanon border in concert with UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that enshrined the end of their last major hostilities in 2006. U.S. and French diplomats continue to engage directly with Lebanese and Israeli leaders and indirectly with Hezbollah to seek a pathway to de-escalate the conflict, but without producing any diplomatic breakthroughs to date.

In recent months, as Israel–Hezbollah exchanges of artillery and rocket fire have expanded, Israel has intensified its strikes in Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah-controlled weapons assembly and storage sites, supply routes, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force (IRGC-QF) commanders in an effort to disrupt the weapons supply chain for Hezbollah. According to data compiled by experts at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Israel has killed at least 20 IRGC-QF officials and more than 30 Hezbollah commanders since October 7. This is a dramatic increase from just two IRGC-QF officials killed in the months of 2023 prior to the Hamas attack. Prior to October 7, no Hezbollah fighters had been killed in Syria in 2023.

Israel's Syria campaign aims to make sure that, should Israeli leaders decide to launch an all-out offensive against the group, Hezbollah would be significantly weakened beforehand. Regional officials noted a lull in Israeli strikes in the few weeks after the April 4 Iranian missile and armed drone barrage against Israeli territory, even though the volley was almost entirely intercepted by Israeli, U.S., and allied air defense operations, including by several moderate Arab states. That Iranian attack, the first major Iranian missile and drone attack directly intended to strike Israeli territory, aimed to establish a measure of deterrence after a series of Israeli strikes that killed high-ranking IRGFC-QF commanders in Syria, including a strike that killed seven IRGC-QF officers at the Iranian consulate in Damascus.

However, as Israel-Hezbollah clashes have escalated in May and June, Israel has resumed the prior pace of attacks on Iran-linked facilities and commanders in Syria. An air strike near the Syrian city of Homs on May 29 targeted a vehicle carrying parts for guided missiles from Syria to Lebanon, according to a Syrian source described as an intelligence officer. That followed a May 20 attack on members of Hezbollah, that officer said.

Other attacks have targeted Syrian air defense systems that had in recent years given Hezbollah and Iranian military personnel some security to operate, including Russian-made Pantsir air defense systems and mobile missile launchers that the Syrian military uses. Other strikes have targeted early-warning radar systems. "In some cases, Israel is hitting even before we install our equipment," a Syrian official source said. Israeli officials have acknowledged targeting advanced anti-aircraft weapons, heavy rockets and precision-guidance systems for missiles operated by Iranian and Hezbollah operatives.

A June 2 Israeli air raid that killed 18 people, including an IRGC-QF adviser, targeted a clandestine, fortified weapons site near Aleppo, regional sources told journalists. The death of the IRGC-QF commander, Saeed Abyar, which was acknowledged by Iranian state media, demonstrated Israel’s ability to take out key personnel and targeting equipment even though Iran has employed new methods of protecting weapons and parts bound for Hezbollah. Iran’s new tactics have included moving the manufacture of weapons to more hidden or fortified locations, according to Syrian official sources. Abyar reportedly was struck while visiting a missile manufacturing plant for missiles for Hezbollah that was hidden inside a stone quarry east of the city of Aleppo. According to a Syrian official described as an intelligence officer: "The facility was in an area designed to be hard to find and hard to hit."

Whereas Iran, on April 4, responded to attacks on its high-ranking commanders in Syria, the Assad regime has barely responded at all to Israeli attacks on its soil. Nor has Syria, despite its membership in Iran’s “Axis of Resistance” joined in any operations designed specifically to pressure Israel as it battles Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah across its northern border. According to observers, Syria’s border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights remains relatively calm despite a handful of strikes launched by Hezbollah-allied groups on Israel.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, a U.K.-based watchdog focused mainly on the Syrian civil conflict, says that since the start of the war in Gaza, only 26 rocket attacks from Syria have targeted the Golan Heights. Most have landed in open areas – a trend interpreted by U.S. and global officials as an indication the Assad regime wants to stay out of the Gaza conflict. Syria, still reeling from the internal civil conflict that began in 2011 and weakened Damascus’ government and military, might have been deterred from joining Axis operations by Israel. According to a Western diplomat: “The Israelis clearly warned Assad that if Syria was used against them they would destroy his regime.”

The Assad regime’s Russian partners might also have contributed to Assad’s decision to stand down on the Gaza conflict. Despite its expanding strategic ties to Tehran, Moscow’s interests have brought the Kremlin to a position that differs from Tehran concerning Syria’s participation in the Gaza-related regional war. Russia, whose forces have been decisive, along with those of Iran, in helping Assad regain control of much of the country from armed rebels, maintains diplomatic ties with Israel and has pushed for stability in Syria. Consumed by its war against Ukraine, the Kremlin has already been compelled to draw forces and equipment from its mission in Syria to the Ukraine battlefield. Moscow apparently does not want to have to recommit forces to help Assad should he become weakened further by embroiling his military in the Gaza crisis. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which brokered the Assad regime’s return to the Arab fold but remains strategically at odds with Tehran, has also exerted pressure on Assad not to align his regime with the Gaza-related, Iran-led war against Israel and the United States in the region.

Some observers explain Assad’s decision to stay out of the Gaza crisis as a product of Damascus’ longstanding strains with Hamas and lack of enthusiasm for helping the group strategically. Hamas’ ideology is derived from the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist group that Syria’s secular Baathist regime considers to be terrorists. One diplomat told journalists: “The [Assad] regime hates Hamas and has no desire to support the Muslim Brotherhood, whose victory could only strengthen their friends in Syria.” There has also been little evident public pressure on the government to support Hamas. Damascus has only seen a handful of small pro-Palestinian rallies since October 7 – a clear contrast with massive demonstrations in solidarity with Palestinians in other Arab capitals.