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October 26, 2021 11:16 am

Israel’s Shadow War Delayed Iran’s Takeover of Syria — But Only for Now

avatar by Yaakov Lappin


Members of Syrian Democratic Forces transport a suicide car bomb used by the Islamic State militants in Raqqa, Syria October 1, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

Explosive drones likely launched by Iranian-backed militias recently targeted the Al-Tanf US airbase in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. The strike appears to be in retaliation for alleged Israeli strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria, which the Syrian regime said came from the direction of the Al-Tanf base.

These events represent an escalation in a much longer struggle.

Since 2013, Israel has been waging a shadow war aimed at preventing Iran from building a war machine in Syria.

Nevertheless, despite considerable success in denting Tehran’s plans for Syria, the Islamic Republic remains committed to entrenching itself in Syria, building a new terror army there, and equipping it with growing firepower capabilities.

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Israel’s reported gray zone covert strikes are designed to disrupt Iran’s activities without sparking an all-out regional war. The strikes are fueled by the combination of high quality intelligence on the weapons and movements of the Iranian axis in Syria, and Israel’s precision air power.

This combination has stopped the Islamic Republic from realizing part of its dangerous vision for Syria, but not all of it, and all successes are only temporary.

Between 2013 and 2016, Iran had planned on having its own military forces and bases on Israel’s doorstep in Syria. This dangerous vision included Iranian navy base for its ships on the Syrian coastline, ground bases for its land troops, and air bases for its aircraft in Syria.

By 2016, however, it became clear to Tehran that Israel would not allow this to happen, so Iran changed gears. Under the vision of the late Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Iran sought to create a second Hezbollah in Syria, and arm it with tens of thousands of rockets to threaten Israel.

Seeing that Iran adapted its strategy, Israel began targeting these more covert Iranian entrenchment efforts.

All the while, Israel’s intelligence agencies kept a watchful eye on the transit of advanced Iranian weapons via Syria to Lebanon, with their final intended address being Hezbollah’s Lebanese bases, which today houses more than 150,000 projectiles.

Soleimani’s vision for Syria did not turn into reality, but this has not stopped the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei from ordering Soleimani’s successor, Email Qaani, from continuing with the program.

Iran continues to traffic advanced weaponry into Syria, and from there, to Lebanon’s warehouses, through land, air and sea routes. And it continues to try to build a second Hezbollah in Syria itself.

Iran has also been working to build strike capabilities against Israel from Iraq, equipping its Shiite militias there with missiles and drones. During Israel’s military conflict with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza in May of this year, it was an Iraqi militia that sent an explosive drone to infiltrate Israel’s air space (the drone was shot down by Israel). These same Shiite militias in Iraq also pose a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.

Despite Israel’s effective air strikes in Syria, Iran still has the ability to advance Soleimani’s plan.

In order to permanently thwart Iran’s takeover of Syria, one of two scenarios must occur. Iran could decide to cut its losses and leave — Iran’s own estimates show it has invested $30 billion in its Syria project thus far, and suffered an unknown number of casualties.

But with Iran’s hard-line elements fully in control of all three centers of power (the executive, judiciary, and the executive), and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps consolidating its political power, an Iranian decision to ditch Syria does not look likely.

An alternative solution would require the United States and Russia to come together around a political decision based on a joint recognition that Iran needs to be rolled out of Syria for good.

Iran wants to turn Syria into the core zone of its radical Shiite axis, and the central bridge between Iran and the Mediterranean. Iran’s regional hegemony program, and long-term vision of surrounding with firepower bases, is dependent on its control of Syria. And this destabilizing activity is not in line with Russia’s interests.

In the meantime, Israel has managed a sensitive deconfliction mechanism with Russia in the tight air space of Syria and Lebanon, where both the Israeli and Russian air forces operate. When it comes to operating its air force, Jerusalem has made every effort to avoid interfering with Russia’s ability to carry out its air missions while the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carries out its own.

The Syrians have been happy to fire surface-to-air missile systems, such as the Russian-made SA-5, at areas in the sky where they believed an Israeli jet might have been recently, in a haphazard manner. Russia has never fired its own air defense capabilities at Israel, using them instead to protect its own assets on the ground.

In response to Israeli counter-measures, Iran merely adapts the ways in which it seeks to take over Syria.

The end result so far is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the threat from Syria is significantly smaller than it could have been. Still, Syria remains the focal point of the Iranian-Shiite axis’s activities.

Another idea reportedly promoted by King Abdullah of Jordan and President Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt, is to try to drive a wedge between the Assad regime and its Iranian backer. A new initiative to supply Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon, which is in an economic crisis and enduring widespread blackouts, via a pipeline that runs through Syria, aligns with this logic.

However, the idea that the Assad regime will be strong enough to push back on Iran’s activities has so far failed to stand up to the test of reality

The Iranians have complained bitterly about Assad granting lucrative reconstruction contracts to Russia at the expense of Iran, and also about the failure to significantly expand Iranian-Syrian trade. This suggests that Damascus can make some decisions on its own — but not many. The Syrian regime remains weak, only partially in control of Syrian territory. It is unable to apply any meaningful sovereignty without its two main backers, Iran and Russia.

The Assad regime is simply too weak, intertwined with Iran, and dependent on it to be separated from the Iranian mother ship — even if it wanted to. For now, the shadow war is set to continue.

Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT) Senior Fellow Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence. A version of this article was originally published at IPT.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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