Developments in southern Syria

Update from AIJAC

 

July 13, 2018

Update 07/18 #01

Today’s Update looks at the latest developments in southern Syria, as the Assad regime, with the vital assistance of Russia and Iran, moves to retake the area around Daraa and Quneitra, near Israel’s border. The ongoing Iranian presence in Syria is a major security challenge for Israel, and there is ongoing tension between the two countries.

Syria accused Israel of attacking the T4 airbase in Syria where Iranian forces are stationed, on July 8. Perhaps in retaliation, on July 11, an unarmed Syrian drone entered Israeli airspace, only to be shot down by Israel, using a Patriot missile, and drawing further Israeli attacks on Syrian army bases.

The first piece is an analysis by Yaakov Lappin of the BESA Centre of Iran’s changing approach to establishing itself militarily in Syria, and Israel’s changing tactics to counter the Iranian threat. He explains that, after Iran’s direct attacks were so resoundingly defeated by Israel earlier this year, it has reverted to its traditional method of using proxies. Israel, as he sets out, is adapting to these changed circumstances, including the complications caused by Russia’s presence. To read this intricate description of the ever-evolving game of cat-and-mouse, CLICK HERE.

Speaking of Russia, Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Russia on July 11 to once again meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) gives a briefing of the meeting between the two leaders, with Netanyahu emphasising that Iran must leave Syria. Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post considers why it is that the two leaders meet with each other so often. While it is obviously in part to try to ensure their countries don’t have an accidental military confrontation in Syria, Keinon suggests they also find it useful for the messages their meetings send to other countries, not least Iran. To read Keinon’s analysis of the story behind these meetings, CLICK HERE.

Finally, former Israeli Chief of the General Staff and Defence Minister Lt. Gen. (Res) Moshe (Bogie) Ya’alon and Yair Lapid, chairman of the Yesh Atid party in Israel’s parliament, argue that it is time the international community recognised Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights territory it captured from Syria in 1967. They ask, “Would you take an area that is flourishing in a western democratic state, where fifty thousand people of different religions and ethnicities live in harmony, and hand it over to a violent dictatorship ruled by the worst mass murderer of our time so that he can destroy the area and murder most of the residents?” To read the rest of their compelling argument, CLICK HERE.

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Israel’s Active Defense Campaign in Syria: The Next Phase

By  July 12, 2018

Israeli Sufa planes, also known as the F-16I, flying in formation over Israel, photo via Wikimedia Commons

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 892, July 12, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Tehran’s recent decision to attempt direct clashes with Israel resulted in a resounding defeat on May 10, when the IDF destroyed 50 Iranian military targets in Syrian territory. Iran is now shifting gears back to its traditional proxy approach. While it appears reluctant to mobilize Hezbollah against Israel right now and risk a full-scale regional war, it is continuing to work on securing a military position in Syria to use for future aggression. Israel must maintain its flexibility and responsiveness in order to prevent the creation of a second Iranian mass missile front on the border.

Judging from international media reports, Israel’s campaign to keep Iran out of Syria has entered a new phase.

In the previous phase, Tehran had injected its own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces into Syria, where they proceeded to build drone, missile, and infantry bases. Iran’s grander ambition is to set up naval and air force bases on Syrian soil as well. In addition, it wants to flood the country with projectile launchers and terrorist cells that would assault Israel in the future.

The initial effort ran up against persistent and accurate Israeli defensive counter-measures. Israel relied on advanced intelligence, combined with precision firepower, to destroy Iran’s budding military presence in Syria.

In an effort to deter Israel from continuing with its campaign and force it to accept Tehran’s military presence in Syria, the IRGC’s Quds Force began directly attacking Israel, using drones and truck-mounted mobile rocket launchers. This represented a break from the older Iranian pattern of waging aggression via proxy.

The confrontation ended with a resounding defeat for Iran when, on May 10, the Israel Defense Forces destroyed more than 50 Iranian military targets scattered across Syria. Israeli air defenses also successfully dealt with an Iranian rocket barrage over the Golan Heights.

Iran’s decision to use its own forces to directly attack Israel proved to be a strategic error: it exposed the Iranian assets to Israeli firepower and saved Israel the trouble of having to deal with Iran’s proxies. It also underlined Israel’s solid intelligence coverage of Syria. Israel used the event to send a firm message to Tehran about its willingness and ability to enforce its red lines in its own backyard.

A secondary message was sent to the Assad regime, which tried to shoot down Israeli fighter jets on May 10 using a combination of surface-to-air missile batteries (SA-5s, 17s, and 22s). Every battery that took part in an attack on Israeli aircraft was destroyed. In total, more than half of the Assad regime’s air defenses have been knocked out by Israel in recent months.

Yet, as the latest international media reports indicate, Tehran has not given up. It has merely switched tactics. Iran is still seeking to establish a foothold in Syria but is now relying more on its militias, a development that marks a return to the older proxy model.

Iran may have switched gears, but Israel’s defensive campaign appears to be responding to it in the same way. In mid-June, according to international media reports, Israel conducted a major airstrike on a military base housing the Iran-backed Katai’b Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite militia. The airstrike occurred in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. This is the area where Iran is trying to build a land bridge to link it directly to Syria and Lebanon via Iraq.

Dozens of militia members were reportedly killed in the attack. At the start of July, according to media reports, a blast rocked an arms depot belonging to an Iran-backed militia in Daraa, in southern Syria, where the Assad regime is involved in a major push to retake the area from Sunni rebel groups.

It is worth recalling that leaders of Iran-sponsored militias have, in recent months, visited Lebanon, where they were given tours of the Israeli border by Hezbollah and made threats that they would take part in future fighting against Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel still seems to be targeting Iranian heavy weapons trafficking across Syria.

An airstrike rocked the Damascus airport at the end of June, reportedly targeting an Iranian missile transfer.

Iran has for years been trying to use Syria to transit advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

More recently, it tried to assemble missile bases in Syria itself and build a new arsenal to point at Israel. Iran wants the new missiles in Syria to join the estimated 120,000 Hezbollah projectiles already stationed in Lebanon.

Israeli officials have stated that they will not let Iran turn Syria into a second Lebanon. Such statements appear to be backed with consistent action.

One initial conclusion that can be reached from the recent reports is that Iran is trying to change its modus operandi in Syria to avoid Israeli strikes, but that these efforts have not been successful.

A second conclusion is that Iran is reluctant to activate Hezbollah against Israel right now. Generally speaking, Tehran seems deterred at this time from taking a risk big enough to spark a regional war with Israel – but it still wishes to build up a military basis in Syria for future aggression.

Following the losses it incurred in May, Iran seems to be more aware of the risks involved in directly confronting Israel and is thus falling back on militias, as well as weapons trafficking, to lower the stakes. But it is continuing its efforts to take over Syria militarily, meaning the threat of a wider confrontation has not vanished by any means.

Iran’s calculations cannot be divorced from other strategic developments, such as the cancellation of the nuclear deal by the Trump administration, internal unrest, and economic troubles.

Despite growing pressure, Iran has signaled that it refuses to be rolled back to its own borders, meaning the potential for escalation remains.

The Israel Air Force (IAF) is in charge of rapid responses to Iran’s activities. The IAF has been able to keep up a very high operational tempo while displaying flexibility in its policing of Israel’s security interests in Syria.

Russia, which is the senior partner in the pro-Assad coalition, appears to have reluctantly accepted Israel’s activities despite protesting them, and despite concerns that the Iranian-Israeli conflict could spin out of control without warning. That scenario could bring down the Assad regime.

The IAF has had to learn how to fly in the region in a way that evades Russia’s considerable intelligence-gathering abilities.

The growing Israeli F-35 squadron, now at 12 jets, and the IAF’s ability to keep upgrading its older, legacy F-16 and F-15 aircraft, have meant that Israel’s regional air superiority has been maintained so far in the face of increasing challenges.

The Syrian war appears to be winding down, and Hezbollah is reportedly beginning to withdraw some of its forces from Syria and deploy them back to its southern front against Israel. This means Hezbollah will soon be less stretched along two fronts.

That could free up resources and lead Hezbollah to feel more confident about both provoking Israel in the near to medium term and responding to Israel’s low-profile campaign in Syria. Such a scenario, though not likely, must be taken into consideration, as it would represent a dangerous departure from the status quo.

Because of the inherent explosiveness and instability of the region, Israel takes a calculated risk every time it pursues its “active defense” campaign in the northern arena. But the risk of not acting, and allowing the Iranian axis to build up its force freely, is far greater.

For Israel, failure to act would mean facing two Iranian mass missile fronts, in Lebanon and Syria, which would represent an intolerable threat to Israel’s home front.

Israel’s campaign not only contains the threat from the north. It also serves to continually remind the Iranian axis of Israel’s own evolving capabilities, thereby replenishing Israeli deterrence and keeping full-scale war at bay.

Yaakov Lappin is a Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He specializes in Israel’s defense establishment, military affairs, and the Middle Eastern strategic environment.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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Analysis: The message in the Netanyahu – Putin meeting

By HERB KEINON
07/11/2018

Jerusalem Post

Odd as it may sound, Netanyahu gives Putin a degree of legitimacy that the Russian leader lost to a large degree in the west.

MOSCOW – Many and varied are the reasons Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has an interest in meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin as often as he does – and Netanyahu does meet the Russian leader a lot.

The prime minister’s meeting with Putin on Wednesday evening in the Kremlin was the ninth time the two leaders have met since Russia became active militarily in Syria in September 2015. During this three-year time frame, Netanyahu has met with Putin more than with any other world leader, including US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Netanyahu has characterized these meetings as “very important for Israel’s national security,” and – following Russia’s entrance into Syria – the reason is self-evident. Russia is militarily camped out in Israel’s backyard, and it is important for the two countries to talk and coordinate so each understands the other’s interests, so that they do not clash.

It is no small achievement that, indeed, there has not been any clash – accidental or otherwise – between Russian and Israeli forces in Syria over the last three years. This is not something that can be taken for granted, something that just happens. Rather, the understanding and cooperation necessary to avoid those clashes have been a direct result from the meetings between the leaders at the top.

These nine meetings have ensured that Israel knows what Russia’s vital interests are in Syria, that Russia understands the vital concerns of Israel, and that both countries steer clear of harming what is of critical importance to the other.

That’s why the meetings are important for Netanyahu, and these are among the reasons that they are important for Putin as well.

But for Putin, there is more: he is using Netanyahu’s visits to send a message to various audiences. This is also why – of late – Netanyahu’s visits to Russia have been very high-profile.

Inviting Netanyahu to Moscow when the eyes of the world are on the capital because of the World Cup is a high-profile visit. Inviting him to Moscow in May to sit with him and review the parade in Red Square marking the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany is a very high-profile visit.

This is not Netanyahu secretly arriving in Amman for a meeting with Jordanian King Abdullah II, far from the cameras. This is the prime minister and Putin meeting in the full glare of the cameras for the whole world – and all the Russian people – to see, and doing so time and time again.

What message is Putin trying to send with these meetings?

First and perhaps least important in the Russian president’s mind – though not insignificant – is the message to his own people.

After four years of being sanctioned and basically blackballed diplomatically by the West for his invasion and annexation of Crimea, Putin’s meetings with Netanyahu show the Russian people that Moscow is still a very significant player which can’t be ignored. Sure, Russia might have been drummed out of the G8, which has reverted to being the G7, but its counsel and favors are sought after by leading international figures.

As odd as it may sound, Netanyahu gives Putin a degree of legitimacy that the Russian leader lost to a large degree in the West with his Crimean adventure.

Then there is the message these visits send to the Americans.

Syria and the Middle East will obviously be a major topic of conversation at Putin’s summit with Trump next week in Helsinki. Meeting with Netanyahu just days before, and prior to the unveiling by the administration of its long-awaited blueprint for Mideast peace, is Putin’s way of reminding Washington that he and Netanyahu are on close terms, that regional issues are being discussed between them, and that Moscow cannot be left out of any broader regional plan that the Americans might unveil.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the message that Putin standing alongside Netanyahu sends to the Iranians.

Russian and Iranian interests in Syria are far from identical, and Moscow has let the Iranians know on more than one occasion that it would like them to leave Syria. The meeting with Netanyahu, the closeness between the two, is a subtle hint to the Iranians that if they do not accede to Russia’s demands – something that is by no means a given – Russia may give Israel a freer hand to operate in Syria than it has been given up until now.

The meetings between Putin and Netanyahu have become part of the message, but so, too, are the events that come directly before or after the meetings. Within hours of Netanyahu’s return from Israel last May, Israel struck hard at Iranian positions in Syria, after Iran fired missiles at the Golan, in a retaliatory action for a previous raid attributed to Jerusalem.

That timing was obviously not coincidental, and it beggars belief to think such an action was not discussed in the Kremlin just hours before it took place.

So, too, this week’s attacks at the T4 air base, also attributed to Israel, should not be divorced from Wednesday’s meeting. The timing of these alleged actions sends an unmistakable message to the Iranians: Russia is not standing in the way of the Israeli actions.

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Will the West cede the Golan Heights to a psychopath?

We call on the US to lead an international process to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory

By MOSHE YA’ALON and YAIR LAPID

1 July 2018

Times of Israel

Ruins of medieval Nimrod Fortress in the northern Golan Heights in Israel (iStock)Ruins of medieval Nimrod Fortress in the northern Golan Heights in Israel (iStock)

We live in a world full of complex diplomatic dilemmas, but for once here is a simple one: Would you take an area that is flourishing in a western democratic state, where fifty thousand people of different religions and ethnicities live in harmony, and hand it over to a violent dictatorship ruled by the worst mass murderer of our time so that he can destroy the area and murder most of the residents?

If your answer is “no” then you support recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

In 1981 Israel applied its law to the Golan Heights. The Syrians insisted it be returned to them. Most countries, including the United States, have avoided taking a clear position. We believe it’s time to get off the fence.

The Golan Heights is a unique story in the Israeli-Arab conflict. It’s a mountainous region of around 695 square miles (around the size of a medium-sized ranch in Texas), in the north of Israel. It’s worth noting, of course, that it is entirely unrelated to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Not a single Palestinian lives in the Golan Heights.

[Syria] is a dark regime led by a psychopath supported by the most malevolent forces on earth today.

Historically, the Golan is known as the biblical land of Bashan from the book of Deuteronomy. Just recently a major renovation of a 4th century Jewish synagogue was completed and in archaeological excavations a coin from 67 CE was discovered with an inscription which read, “For the redemption of Jerusalem the Holy.” It is an area with a long and deep Jewish connection.

The Syrians, on the other hand, ruled over the Golan Heights for only 21 years; between the years 1946 and 1967. During those years they turned the Golan into a military base, rained rocket fire on the Israeli communities which are under the Golan Heights and tried to divert Israel’s critical water sources to dry the country out.

Then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon looks into Syrian territory from the Golan Heights on December 3, 2013. (Photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash 90)

In 1967, during the Six Day War, the Golan Heights was liberated by Israel. In the 51 years since then Israel developed the Golan Heights and turned it into an impressive center of nature reserves and tourism, with high-tech agriculture, award winning wines, a flourishing food-tech industry and in-demand boutique hotels. The Druze population of the Golan Heights, who make up about half the population, were granted all the same rights as any other citizen in Israel, as would be done in any genuine democracy.

On the other side of the border, life went in the other direction; in the past seven years President Assad has massacred over a half a million of his own people and his actions led to the displacement of 11 million more. He let the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, the largest terror organizations in the world, into Syria. He encouraged Shia militias from Iraq and elsewhere to flood into Syria. It is a dark regime led by a psychopath supported by the most malevolent forces on earth today.

The man who didn’t hesitate to use chemical weapons against women and children, continued to demand the Golan Heights in the name of “international law.” The fact that anyone in the Western world still takes that argument seriously is worse than naivete – it is insanity. Does his monstrous behavior have no cost? Do we live in the world without any sense of reward and punishment? The fact that the Golan Heights is under Israeli rule is the only thing that saved it from the Syrian valley of death, which is collapsing under the weight of violence and destruction.

The international community, led by the United States, needs to do the simple thing: To announce that they see the world as it is. We call on the American administration and both parties – Republicans and Democrats – to lead an international process of recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

It is historically just, it is strategically smart and it will allow the United States to extract a price from Assad for his despicable behavior without putting boots on the ground in Syria.

Lt. Gen (Res.) Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon served as IDF Chief of the General Staff until 2005 and Minister of Defense until 2016. MK Yair Lapid is the Chairperson of Yesh Atid, a former member Israel’s Security Cabinet and currently serves on the Knesset Committee on Intelligence and the Secret Services.