Despite Russian Aid to Hezbollah, Israel Takes the Fight to Syria
JNS.org – A recent, purported Israeli airstrike against a Syrian chemical weapons facility has added another layer of complexity to an already combustible situation in Syria.
With the September 7 airstrike at the “Scientific Studies and Researchers Center,” which is believed to be producing chemical weapons and precision missiles in central Syria, fears are growing that Israel may be ready to act more boldly against Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah targets. Observers worry that this could ignite a larger regional war in an already devastated country.
At the same time, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has been holding its largest military exercise in decades, which are aimed at the threat from Hezbollah.
The exercise, which involves tens of thousands of soldiers from all branches of the IDF — including reserve forces — is overseen by the IDF’s Northern Command. The drill simulates a scenario involving a rapid escalation with Hezbollah that progresses into a full-blown war, necessitating the IDF to defend Israel on all fronts.
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.org that Israel’s airstrike in Syria and its military exercise show Jerusalem’s “seriousness and resolve.” He also said that the IDF’s activities “back up the statements [that] Israel is making.”
“[Israel’s airstrike] was very important,” Badran said. “Since the Russian intervention, they have not struck anywhere north of Homs, now they hit near a Russian base where there is frequent Russian activity.” He added that Israel wanted to show the Iranians and the Russians that simply setting up Iranian military installations in close proximity to Russian bases will not deter Israel.
Badran also noted that Israel will not wait for the Russians and the Americans to cut a deal to protect its core concerns.
“Israel is not going to shy away from taking direct action themselves,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has made it clear that Israel will not tolerate Iran and Hezbollah’s actions in Syria.
“We are not looking for any military adventure in Syria but we are determined to prevent our enemies from harming, or even creating the opportunity to harm the security of Israeli citizens,” Liberman told Israel’s Radio FM 100 shortly after the airstrike. “Therefore, everything will be done to prevent the existence of a Shia corridor from Tehran to Damascus.”
The airstrike follows a consistent Israeli pattern over the last few years, of striking at advanced weaponry to prevent a transfer by Iran or Syria to Hezbollah. Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to restrain Iran, saying that if that didn’t happen, Israel would take unilateral action to defend the Jewish state’s interests.
At the same time, Israel has been urging Washington, which has been in negotiations with Russia over a Syrian ceasefire, to not allow a permanent Iranian presence in Syria.
In July, the US and Russia agreed to establish two safe zones in Syria, including one near Israel’s Golan Heights. However, Israel expressed unease about the agreement and disappointment that its security was not taken directly into consideration.
“[Israel’s] position on Iran [being present] in Syria is far more comprehensive than the conversation between [the] Russians and the US,” Badran said.
Similarly, in Lebanon the US faces a challenge of working with the Lebanese government, which is formally controlled by Sunni leader and Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri. In reality, the government is essentially controlled by Hezbollah, the most powerful actor in Lebanon.
The fundamental dilemma for the US is that any support for the Lebanese government or military ends up being unintended support for Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah dominates the Lebanese government, from military officers to the cabinet and even the president,” Badran explained. “The posture of the Trump administration vis-a-vie Iran and Hezbollah is different than Obamas, but the policy of US support for the Lebanese government and armed forces continues.”
While efforts to thwart Iran and Hezbollah’s actions in Syria are ongoing, Washington and Jerusalem have attempted to target Hezbollah’s activities in Lebanon as well.
Since the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the international military mission established by UN Security Council Resolution 1701 is automatically renewed on a yearly basis. This year, the US and Israel are demanding that United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) no longer turn a blind eye to Hezbollah’s violations of that resolution.
In a Jerusalem Post op-ed, US Ambassador the United Nations Nikki Haley said that the new changes to the mandate will make “UNIFIL step up its patrols and inspections which will help disrupt Hezbollah’s illegal activity,” and also “require UNIFIL to report when it is prevented from seeing something it wants to inspect.”
Despite Haley’s optimism, Badran sees little positive change on the horizon.
“There is an element of it being mildly strengthened, but it doesn’t fundamentally alter anything, it doesn’t mean [that] they are going to disarm Hezbollah,” he said.
At the same time, it was also reported that Russia — which has been heavily aiding the Assad government in Syria – is working behind the scenes to protect Hezbollah during negotiations over the mandate, Haaretz reported.
Several new paragraphs related to Hezbollah’s terror activity were initially added to the resolution’s draft, but during negotiations, Russia reportedly threatened to veto it at the Security Council unless all references to the terror group were redacted.
While Israel remains deeply concerned about Iran and Hezbollah’s actions, both in Syria and Lebanon, Badran doesn’t believe that a major regional war looms on the horizon, at least not as we understand it.
“The way the Iranians will target Israel is how they always do it, through assets like Hezbollah, which use Iranian weapons, commanders, officers, etc.,” he said.