What happens in and to Syria invariably affects Israel. The collapse of Syrian civil society created a humanitarian crisis and other pressures and the persistence of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a central plank of the ‘axis of resistance’ against Israel, presents its own problems.
The intervention of Iran in Syria made things more serious. Israel’s leaders feared that Iranian power achieved new expansion, even at the temporary sacrifice of its nuclear programme. Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, sent thousands of fighters into Syria, cementing influence staked by other groups supported by Iran and aided by the Quds Force of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Since Syria’s civil conflict began, Israel has struck in Syria hundreds of times from the air, beginning in 2012. From 2017, strikes became more regular and last year they were not only acknowledged for the first time but openly touted.
There has been more open admission of the past half-decade’s activities. Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, to mark his retirement, spoke extensively to the global press about the course of Israel’s aerial campaign. This comes after attacks targeting the infrastructure and logistics supporting and maintaining the presence of Iranian groups in Syria.
Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said: ‘The groups Israel attacked were primarily IRGC-[al-Quds] and Lebanese Hezbollah. Other groups that were hit (namely, Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghan Shias) were often killed while the Israelis were pursuing other targets.’
Eisenkot’s openness cannot be taken to equal Israeli confidence. Despite its proven capacity to hit targets in Syria largely without loss or serious repercussion, something that has survived Russian-Israeli tensions and a collapse in the deconfliction line designed to prevent Russian anti-air sites from firing at Israeli planes, Israel has reason to worry.
As US President Donald Trump promises a rapid withdrawal from Syria, Israel is left with a nearby civil conflict saturated with its enemies and without the direct presence of one of its most steadfast allies. American confusion and internal division, as well as the mixed messages from other US allies who are evidently intended to take up the slack, have made even the near future harder to discern.
Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the most recent Israeli strikes were an assertion of continued Israeli capacity for action, with that action serving as a fixed point of consistent policy amid wider inconsistency.
‘It is important for Israel at this particular moment to clarify its lines in Syria. An excellent way to do that, when it comes to rules of engagement, is for its public statements to be regularly backed up by visible action. This clarification is to say that Israel can take care of its business on its own, that it is determined to do so and that it has confidence in US support, regardless of the US withdrawal,’ Badran said.
Israel may wish to demonstrate that, no matter the changes to Syria’s internal politics and the balance of forces within the country, its objectives and the ability to back them with force remain undiminished.
John Arterbury, an analyst focused on Syria, said: ‘Israel has established certain boundaries and norms in how it intervenes within Syria, although the changing international political landscape could force it to more publicly take ownership of its policies. Absent an American ally in the north, Israel may articulate its goals in Syria more clearly and may be pushed into trying to earn greater concessions from Russia.’
Israel’s intervention in Syria has not met with uniform success.
Its campaign to aid Syria’s southern rebels met with defeat when the rebel south was conquered, after a series of reconciliation agreements, by the Assad regime and its allies last year.
Iran-backed forces, which encroach on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and pose a serious missile threat to Israel, are unlikely to be dislodged while the Assad regime remains in power and in Tehran’s debt.
It is Israel’s hope that these material facts matter less than they might seem.
‘Israel’s capability to strike in Syria at will and its sustainability are not affected by any advances by the Assad coalition. Israel has shown that if Assad’s forces or defences get in the way, or place themselves in the vicinity of Iranian targets, they will be destroyed as well’, Badran said.
Continued Israeli action in Syria can be guaranteed as the United States withdraws, serving as a statement of continued tactical intent and providing a basis for diplomatic accommodation with the Assad regime’s Russian backer.
Whether this will be successful in a Syria dominated by Iran’s client Assad, in which Iranian proxies are able to operate freely and flagrantly, remains to be seen.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.