Syria Concerns

Israeli airstrike in Damascus, July 1, 2019 (Photo - OMAR SANADIKI / Reuters)

Update from AIJAC

Update 08/19 #03

This Update deals with some recent analysis of Israeli policy toward Syria as the civil war there winds down, and some specific concerns vis-a-vis Syria for Israel, other regional actors, and the international community more broadly.

We lead with a general look at what Israel has been trying to achieve with its campaign of hundreds of airstrikes inside Syria over the past two years, written by noted Israeli security analyst Yaakov Lappin. He quotes Mossad head Yossi Cohen to underline his main point – namely that Israel’s strategy is seeking to convince the Iranian regime’s leadership that their military buildup in Syria is just not worth it, given the costs Israel is determined to inflict. He further explores Israeli efforts to increase the diplomatic pressure on Iran over Syria, particularly through Russia, and the Iranian push-back. For this essential guide to what is really happening in the Israel-Iran “shadow war” in Syria,  CLICK HERE.

Next up is a discussion of a more specific problem for Israel – and for Jordan – in Syria, namely the growing Hezbollah build-up in southwest Syria, along the Golan and Jordanian borders. As Taylor Luck of the Christian Science Monitor explains, Russia gave promises to keep Iranian forces away from the border area, but has failed to deliver or reneged with respect to the growing Hezbollah presence on the border. Luck speaks to experts about the fears that the Hezbollah presence may lead to escalation, and finds some suggest that an increased US role in Syria may be the only way to avert escalation. For this insightful report in full,  CLICK HERE.

In the final article, Israeli academic expert on Syria Eyal Zisser takes on an aspect of the end of the Syrian civil war that affects everyone in the region – the millions of refugees in camps in several different countries. Zisser notes that while these refugees were initially largely welcomed because of sympathy with the opposition to the Assad regime,  in Turkey, in Egypt, in Lebanon, and in Jordan, they now face growing hostility and anger. However, he notes the refugees do not wish to return to Syria, and the Syrian regime does not really wish them to, preferring the current more manageable and homogenous population. For Zisser’s complete discussion of why he foresees the refugees only being forsaken once again, CLICK HERE.

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Israel’s strategic goal in Syria

 

YAAKOV LAPPIN

Israel’s shadow war in Syria is based on the strategic objective of convincing the Islamic Republic that its investment there is going to waste. Iran has so far chosen to weather the strikes and shift tactics without abandoning its Syria project.

BESA Centre, August 11, 2019

Alleged Israeli strikes in Syria, May-July 2019 (Source: Haaretz). 

At the start of July, media reports surfaced regarding an alleged wave of Israeli strikes on Iranian-axis targets across Syria. The reports serve as a reminder of the ongoing shadow war raging between Jerusalem and Tehran, and bring into the spotlight Israel’s long-term strategic objective.

The strikes allegedly hit Iranian and Hezbollah weapons sites. They included development, storage and transfer facilities, some of which appear to have been embedded in Syrian regime military bases. Targets around Damascus, Homs and western Syria were all reportedly hit, resulting in a number of casualties.

Long before the United States began its policy of maximum economic pressure on Iran, Israel was applying its own policy of maximum—yet low-profile—pressure in Syria, and that policy continues.

Using advanced intelligence coupled with precision firepower, the Israeli defense establishment has prioritized disrupting Iran’s war machine in Syria. Israel has also acted on many occasions to prevent Iran from using Syria as a transit and production zone for advanced weapons, such as guided missiles, for the benefit of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This effort involves tracking flights, weapons factories, suspicious ground convoys, and an array of Iranian weapons production and smuggling activities throughout the Middle East.

According to reports, Israel’s “war between wars” campaign has also included strikes against Iranian efforts to build a land corridor linking Iraq to Syria for the purpose of transferring weapons and fighters.

The reported Israeli strikes represent the tip of a very large iceberg. For every reported preventive action by Israel, it can be assumed that there are many more that go unreported and remain unknown to the general public.

Israel is determined not to allow Iran to build drone bases, missile factories and proxy terror networks with which to threaten its citizens, and the Israel Air Force operates at a high tempo around the clock to monitor and disrupt emerging threats.

Israel’s overall strategic objective in these strikes was spelled out by Mossad Director Yossi Cohen hours after the alleged July 1 attack, when he stated at the Herzliya Conference, “I believe that Iran will reach the conclusion that it is just not worth it.”

This statement reflects the wider Israeli goal, which is not limited to just physically stopping Iran’s force build-up in Syria. Rather, Israel’s goal is to get Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force to reach the conclusion that they will not be able to slip offensive capabilities into Syria without Israel’s noticing and taking action.

Hundreds of Israeli strikes in recent years were designed to push Iran into changing course and scaling back its Syria project. It is hoped that the net result of the strikes will be that Iran is forced to perform a cost-benefit analysis and conclude that its investments in Syria are going to waste.

Iran’s response so far has been to play cat and mouse with Israel: It temporarily tones down its activities before turning the volume back up and shifting the focus of its force build-up activities away from southern Syria, near the Israeli border and Damascus, and toward the deep central Syrian desert.

Cohen confirmed this in his speech, saying that Mossad has witnessed the Iranians and Hezbollah building bases further north in Syria.

This likely includes Iranian attempts to use the T4 airbase in central Syria as an alternative to Damascus’s international airport for smuggling and storing advanced weapons before distributing them onward to Syria and Lebanon.

“They mistakenly think it will be harder to reach,” Cohen said during his speech.

In recent weeks, Israel has attempted to complement its military steps with added diplomatic pressure on Iran to roll back its activities in Syria. This came in the form of a significant trilateral meeting, held in Jerusalem on June 24, which saw national security advisers from Russia, the United States and Israel meet to discuss Syria.

The results of this effort remain unclear. Publicly, at least, Russian national security adviser Nikolai Patrushev indicated that Moscow is in no hurry to disband its alliance with Iran in Syria, which has seen the two countries coordinate air and ground operations to secure the brutal regime of Bashar Assad.

“Iran has been and will be an ally and partner of ours, with which we have [been] gradually developing ties for quite some time, both bilaterally and multilaterally,” Patrushev said during the conference. “Any attempts to make Tehran look like the main threat to global security, to put it in the same basket as ISIS or any other terror group, are unacceptable. Iran has been contributing a lot to the fight against terrorism in Syria, helping to stabilize the situation. We call upon our partners to exercise restraint and to take efforts to alleviate the concerns and tensions. Efforts should be made to decrease tensions between Israel and Iran.”

Hassan Rouhani with Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting in Sochi in February 2019. Russia has sought to position itself as arbiter in Syria between Israel and Iran. (Photo: EPA)

Moscow’s public stance appears to suggest that while Russia is open to pressuring Iran to stay away from the Israeli border, it either cannot or will not act to oust the Iranians and their proxies from Syria. Iran’s presence is still needed to stabilize the Assad regime, and the Iranians still have a strategic role to play in Russia’s long-term Syrian project, despite the clear fractures and tensions that are emerging between Moscow and Tehran due to a divergence of interests in Syria.

Iran, for its part, is working to counteract Israel’s attempts to recruit Russia against the Iranian axis. In recent days, a member of the Iranian Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee stated that despite Russian-Israeli ties, Tehran has been able to maximize the utility of the “Russian card” in its activities in Syria, according to a report by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center.

Israeli-Iranian competition over Russian influence looks set to continue, placing Moscow in the position of arbitrator in Syria—which suits Russia’s objective of returning to great-power status in the Middle East.

Iran’s overall response, therefore, has been to try and weather the Israeli strikes and be flexible in its approach to building up a force in Syria, without abandoning its ambition of turning the country into an extension of the Hezbollah-Lebanese front against Israel.
In the face of increasing American economic sanctions pressure, Iran could seek to activate proxies or assets in Syria to target Israel. Iran appears to have already tried such a provocation on June 1, when two rockets were fired at Mount Hermon from Syria. The Israeli retaliation targeted Assad regime artillery, an air defense battery and observation posts.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attack left three Syrian soldiers and seven “foreign fighters”—Iranian and Hezbollah personnel—dead.

The Israeli-Iranian struggle in Syria looks set to continue. Both sides seek to recruit Russia against the other.

Crucially, Israel has shown its determination to use military force to keep Iran in check in Syria. This determination was expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 14 during a visit to the IDF National Defense College. “At the moment, the only military in the world that is fighting Iran is the Israeli military,” he said.

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.


What Russian deal? Israel and Jordan cast wary eye toward Syria

Israel and Jordan are disappointed with a security deal that hasn’t stopped Hezbollah from entrenching itself in southern Syria. Can the U.S. provide positive leadership there?

By Taylor Luck

Christian Science Monitor, August 12, 2019

Israeli soldiers stand at a lookout point near the cease-fire line between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, March 25, 2019. (Photo: Ammar Awad/Reuters)
AMMAN, JORDAN- With the United States increasing pressure on Iran, concerns are rising that southern Syria could be a flashpoint for growing tensions between Iran and the U.S., Israel, and the Arab world.

It became clear in 2018 that Syria’s Russia- and Iran-backed president, Bashar al-Assad, had emerged as the victor in his country’s civil war. And Russia, the main power broker, pledged to both Israel and Jordan that security arrangements for southern Syria would keep Iranian forces 70 to 80 kilometers (43 to 50 miles) from their borders.

Israel and Jordan took that pledge to include Iran’s proxies, especially the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

With U.S. diplomacy also notably diminished on Syria, concern is growing among Israel, Jordan, and regional analysts that an unintended and potentially “devastating” escalation may be around the corner in which no one would be able to back down.

“Russia promised that the Iranians and militias would be driven out from southern Syria, and Russia did not deliver the goods,” says Ely Karmon, senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya, Israel.

The alleged Russian response to Israel? The agreement concerned Iranian forces, not their agents.

Tit for tat

After Hezbollah sent thousands of fighters in 2013 to prop up President Assad, Israel began a campaign of surgical strikes against Hezbollah and Iranian military installations and leaders near the Israeli-held Golan Heights and weapons convoys headed toward Lebanon.

Unwilling to take sides in the civil war, Israel refrained from targeting Syrian regime forces, focusing instead on preventing Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards from establishing a second northern front on the Golan.

Iran and its militias, consumed with bolstering Mr. Assad’s flagging forces, refrained from responding in force.

It was a low-level tit for tat: Israel would strike Iranian bases or a missile convoy; Hezbollah would fire on Israeli military patrols or bases on the Golan.

“The Israelis have been careful with what they have targeted, and the targets have concluded that now is not the time to push back,” says Jon Alterman, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

The containment had worked. Until now.

Hezbollah cements its presence

Israel’s containment policy is now reaching its limits, with Hezbollah and Iranian proxies reportedly embedding themselves in southern Syria.

According to security sources and analysts, Hezbollah has 7,000 to 10,000 forces across Syria, with another 8,000 to 12,000 Shiite fighters loyal to Iran from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen that coordinate with the Lebanese group.

But as Mr. Assad cemented his control over the country in the last year, security sources say Hezbollah’s presence in southern Syria has grown dramatically – with reportedly 1,000 fighters in the Daraa region near Jordan and in Quneitra, facing Israeli forces on the Golan.

Uniformed men ride in a pickup truck in Quneitra, on the Syrian side of the cease-fire line between Israel and Syria, as seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, July 26, 2018. Hezbollah fighters in the area are said to wear Syrian uniforms to avoid Israeli fire. (Photo: Ammar Awad/Reuters) 

Former Free Syrian Army rebels who have returned to their hometowns in southern Syria after an amnesty agreement with the regime say Hezbollah is effectively “governing” several towns and villages.

Hezbollah and Shiite militias patrol areas dressed as uniformed Syrian regime forces in order to avoid being hit by Israeli airstrikes, they say, or, more frequently, deploy former rebel fighters to patrol areas and provide intelligence directly to the Iran-backed paramilitary group.

“Either you answer to Hezbollah, or you leave,” says Abu Mohammed, a former rebel who had previously lived in Jordan and did not wish to use his real name.

The claims, like most developments in regime-controlled Syria, are difficult to verify.

But multiple Syrians also report their homes and entire neighborhoods have been overtaken by Shiite militias and their families – part of a planned “demographic change” in the south.

More concerning for Israel is the fact that Hezbollah has gained urban warfare experience from the civil war, tactical planning knowledge from coordinating with the Russians and Iranians, and an extensive armory of ballistic missiles, guided missiles, and armed drones.

The Israeli daily Haaretz stated that Iran was transforming villages in southern Syria into “fortresses,” indicating that since the Russia agreement, “Hezbollah was actually more active in the region, and the organization was reestablishing its terror networks in southern Syria.”

Escalation fears

With the U.S. upping its economic and military pressure on Iran, fears are growing in Amman and among the Israeli security establishment that Tehran may activate Hezbollah to strike back in response.

Previous flare-ups in Syria have been linked to pressure on Iran: On May 8, 2018, the very same day President Donald Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord, Israeli strikes hit Iranian targets at a military base outside Damascus.

Two days later, Iran-backed militias launched 20 rockets at Israeli military bases on the Golan Heights, leading Israel to strike yet again at several Iranian installations across the country.

Moscow, which is looking to draw down its physical presence in Syria while securing the economic payoff of its involvement in the form of Syria’s natural gas reserves and reconstruction contracts, is trying to avoid conflict.

But Russia has proved ineffective at curtailing Iranian involvement and military activity in Syria, Arab and Israeli security experts say.

Instead, Moscow has given Israel a “green light” to slowly drive Hezbollah and Iranian militias away from the border without igniting an open conflict, refusing to deploy its missile defense systems in Syria against Israeli airstrikes.

Regional security experts have called the arrangement “careless” on Moscow’s part and “playing roulette.”

Jordan too fears another conflict on its borders, and the blow it would deliver to an economy that has only just started to recover from the fallout of the Syrian war.

But a long-term Hezbollah presence on its borders is also seen as “unacceptable,” out of belief the militia will be an obstacle to Jordan-Syria relations and trade, and may attempt to smuggle arms and drugs into the kingdom.

Adding to the uncertainty is Israeli elections.

“There are always risks of miscalculations, and you certainly have that when Israel is engaged in an election campaign,” says Mr. Alterman of CSIS. “You don’t want to get sucked into a war that is unwinnable, but you also don’t want to look impotent in the face of confrontation.”

Wanted: an off-ramp

All agree that American leadership could be one of the few factors that could help prevent Iran’s Syria presence from igniting a regional tinderbox.

U.S. and Turkish officials reportedly are close to an agreement that would prevent hostilities on Syria’s northern border, near where U.S. forces are deployed. But according to regional diplomats, American diplomacy on nearly anything else related to Syria is missing.

“This is the central issue: not the U.S., not Israel, not the Iranians, not even Hezbollah know what will happen if there was an unintended provocation in terms of consequences and in causalities,” says Mr. Karmon, the Israeli researcher.
“It is a game of brinkmanship where you can lose control.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. military withdrawal from Syria would allow Iran to control a direct land corridor running through Iraq and into Syria toward the Golan, further fueling the potential for conflict.

“We want the U.S. to maintain a presence in Syria, but also to provide diplomacy to give everyone an off-ramp,” says one Arab diplomat, who was unauthorized to speak to the press.

“If the U.S. does not create that ramp, we don’t know who can.”


The second Syrian refugee crisis

Syrian refugees who fled to neighboring Arab and Muslim countries have begun wearing out their welcome, yet fear returning to the cruel bosom of the Assad regime. The world, much like before, is largely apathetic.

 by  Prof. Eyal Zisser
Israel Hayom
Published on  2019-08-13 10:25

Syrian refugees entering Jordan – they are now much less welcome than when they first came in several countries of refuge, and also do not want to return to Syria. (Photo: Khalil Mazraawi / AFP / Getty Images)

The war in Syria is nearing its end, and all the Damascus regime must do is seize control of the Idlib province in the country’s north, the last rebel-held stronghold. The attack on Idlib, with Russian and Iranian support, is, therefore, a matter of time, and in light of Ankara’s recent rapprochement with Moscow, we can assume that Turkey won’t try stopping it.

Because a great many Syrians who oppose the Assad regime have found refuge in Idlib in recent years, we can assume that the final stage of the war will be even bloodier than its predecessors and will almost certainly force hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Syrians, to seek refuge with their neighbor to the north – Turkey.

This time, however, the Syrian refugees could discover the gates are closed to them, as Turkey has already declared it will not allow them entry. Right now, Ankara is essentially busy trying to get rid of the millions of Syrians already in Turkey.

The Turks are simply fed up with the Syrian refugees, approximately 2 million or so in number, who they received with open arms just a few years ago. Turkish politicians – in step with a growing public sentiment that Syrian refugees cause trouble, spread crime and violence, and also take jobs – are now openly calling for their expulsion and for rapprochement with the Assad regime. In some places in Turkey, anger has devolved into violence against refugees, mainly targeting job seekers.

Turkey is not alone. Egypt, too, is seeing a groundswell of antipathy toward the Syrian refugees, around a quarter-million or more in number, which is also targeting the more affluent among them who have opened businesses in Cairo that compete with local businesses. In Lebanon, the rising tide of criticism against the Syrian refugees, who have greatly burdened the country’s economy, has sparked tensions that have spilled into violence. And finally, in Jordan, which throughout the years has taken pains to concentrate the million and a half refugees from Syria in camps in the country’s north, there are increasing calls to force them back to Syria.

Hence the current trend is that the absorbing countries are changing their attitudes toward their Syrian immigrants. The refugees were initially welcomed warmly by the host populations, which empathized with the uprising in Syria. The revolution was perceived in these countries as a fight by Sunnis against the Alawite sect, headed by Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Shiite Iran.

But local interests and the existential necessities of needing to make a living, together with the feeling that the refugees are, after all, foreigners, ultimately trumped good intentions.  The refugees are now learning that hospitability has an expiration date; and that when temporary refugees become permanent residents, attitudes tend to shift accordingly.

The Syrian refugees, however, have no interest whatsoever in returning to the cruel bosom of a regime from which they fled or were forced to flee. The Syrian regime, for its part, views these refugees as potential enemies because they hail from those areas that spawned and waged the revolt, and it also fears they will become an insurmountable economic burden. To be sure, Syria’s rapid population growth (which reached some 25 million people in 2011) was one of the main factors behind the revolution. Now, after nearly one-third of the country’s residents have become refugees, the population, in the words of Assad himself, has become “more homogenous.”

The world has remained largely apathetic to this crisis. These refugees were already abandoned once before when the Assad regime slaughtered and kicked them out of their country, and now they are being forsaken yet again.

Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.