July 19, 2018

IntelBrief: Israel Challenges Iran in Syria

Israeli soldiers walk past tanks in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, Thursday, May 10, 2018.  (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit).
  • By using its military power to prevent Iran from establishing an infrastructure in Syria, Israel is acting as a proxy for the Trump Administration’s policy to roll back Iran’s regional influence.
  • The United States and Israel accept that the regime of President Bashar Al Assad will eventually recapture the vast majority of Syria.
  • Israeli leaders calculate that Russia is unwilling or unable to reduce Iran’s presence in Syria but will not try to prevent Israel from acting against Iran there.
  • Israel’s use of air power in Syria has evolved from strikes on Iranian weapons shipments to large-scale strikes on bases and factories developed by Iran.


On July 15, 2018, on the eve of President Donald Trump’s high-stakes summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Israel conducted the latest of its increasingly frequent air strikes in Syria.  Israel struck an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) installation at Nayrab airfield near Aleppo, Israel’s deepest strike to date. That, and a strike on IRGC-QF infrastructure in Syria’s Tiyas airbase several days earlier, bracketed a July 11 Moscow meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Putin. Netanyahu, perhaps more pointedly than President Trump, impressed upon Putin that Iranian development of infrastructure in Syria which threatens Israel is unacceptable and will be attacked. Netanyahu repeated to Putin his consistent assertions that Israel’s only interest is in rolling back Iran’s presence, not in destabilizing President Bashar Al Assad. Conversely, Russia’s only interest in Syria is protecting the Assad regime, and not necessarily in reducing Iran’s presence in Syria.

Both Israel and the Trump Administration accept Russia’s core goal that Assad’s forces will eventually restore control over most or all of Syrian territory. Israel also concedes that it must allow in some Syrian civilians fleeing to Israel for medical care or to avoid the violence, which enables Israel to gain a measure of international applause without more directly embroiling it in the internal Syria conflict.    

The Israeli strike on July 15 suggested that Putin gave Netanyahu his assent to the ongoing pattern of Israeli strikes on Iranian infrastructure in Syria, which includes drone bases, arms warehouses, and possibly factories to build rockets and Iran’s specialized anti-armor devices called “explosively-formed projectiles” (EFPs). Iran supplied EFP weapons to Shia militias in Iraq, which used them to significant effect against U.S. armor in Iraq—including killing 500 U.S. service people—from 2003-2011. Israel will not permit Iran to easily supply such weaponry to Lebanese Hezbollah—weaponry that could neutralize Israel’s ground advantage in a future conflict. Israel’s recent strikes reflect a heightened response to Iran’s presence in Syria, whereas Israel’s earlier maneuvers there focused on Iranian weapons transshipments to Hezbollah.

Israel’s insistence on striking Iran in Syria, despite the Russian presence there, reflects a calculation that Putin is unwilling or unable to compel Iranian forces to withdraw from Syria or stay away from Israel’s borders. The latter is an immediate Israeli concern as the conflict moves closer to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Iran will not leave Syria at mere Russian insistence, as Iran is intent on ensuring that Assad remains secure. Further, it can use its presence in Syria to pressure Israel more broadly.

Israel’s effort to destroy Iran’s infrastructure in Syria comports with Trump Administration policy of ‘rolling back’ Iran’s regional influence without further embroiling U.S. forces in the region. To that extent, Israel is serving as a proxy for the United States—furthering U.S. objectives without requiring a U.S. buildup. If Israel is successful, President Trump might even realize his longstanding objective of extricating U.S. forces from Syria entirely. The Trump Administration would likely claim a significant success, even though its policy will have left in place a regime responsible for half a million deaths and the total destruction of its country. 


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