What Israel wants in Syria

It is determined to contain Iran’s growing influence in the region

Updated - April 26, 2021 12:34 am IST

Published - April 26, 2021 12:15 am IST

A healthcare worker stands near a truck that carries COVID-19 vaccine at Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Syrian-Turkish border in Syria’s Idlib Governorate on April 21, 2021

A healthcare worker stands near a truck that carries COVID-19 vaccine at Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Syrian-Turkish border in Syria’s Idlib Governorate on April 21, 2021

Ten years since the outbreak of the crisis in Syria, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad seems to have won the civil war. If in 2015, before the Russian intervention, Mr. Assad’s area of influence had shrunken to the largely Alawite-populated region stretching from Damascus to the Mediterranean coast, his troops now control most of Syria — except Idlib and the Kurdish territories. The Kurds enjoy autonomy in the border region with Turkey, but have bought a delicate peace with Damascus. In effect, Idlib, controlled by jihadists and rebels, and some towns on the border that are held by pro-Turkey militias are the only parts of the country that lie outside the sovereignty of the Syrian government. Mr. Assad’s victory, however, seems to have locked Syria in a prolonged geopolitical contest. The Syrian army turned around the war with help from Russia, Iran and several Iran-backed Shia militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah. They are all still in Syria, which shares a border with Israel. This means the civil war has intensified the Iran-Israel conflict.

Changing tactics

When the Syrian crisis unfolded in 2011-12, Israel took a ‘wait and watch’ approach, primarily because it preferred a stable regime in Damascus to the post-revolutionary chaos — despite the absence of a formal peace treaty, the Israeli-Syrian border has been largely uneventful since the 1970s. But when Iran deployed militias and military assets in Syria in defence of Mr. Assad, it changed Israel’s calculus. Across Israel’s northern border, the Hezbollah has already established a formidable presence. Both Israel’s 1982-2000 occupation of southern Lebanon and the 2006 war on Lebanon were resisted by Hezbollah. Israel would not like to have more Iran-backed Shia militias across the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and which has been the de facto border between the two countries ever since.

So, Israel changed its tactics. It first started helping anti-Assad rebels in the Golan region by reportedly providing cash and medical aid. The plan was to create a buffer between the Golan Heights and the rest of Syria so that the pro-Iran militias could be stopped from coming face-to-face with Israeli troops. Later, after the tides turned in the civil war and Iran deepened its presence in Syria, Israel started bombing Iranian positions inside Syria. Since September 2015, the Syrian air space has practically been controlled by the Russians. But Russia looked away when Israel stepped up its bombings and Israel has been careful not to hit Russian positions in the overcrowded Syrian battlefield.

Three goals

Israel had three key goals: disrupt Iranian supplies for Hezbollah and other Shia militias; stop the militias advancing towards the de facto border; and by continuously targeting them, weaken Iran’s presence in Syria. In the last three years, Israel has carried out dozens of aerial attacks in Syria. In retaliation, Syria has often fired anti-aircraft missiles. In February 2018, Syria shot down an Israeli war plane. Last week, an anti-aircraft surface-to-air missile, purportedly fired by the Syrian army, landed near Israel’s secretive nuclear facility in Dimona. In response, Israel carried out a round of bombing in Syria.

For the Syrian government, support from Iran was a lifeline. While Russia provided air power in the civil war, Iran supplied ground troops. So, Mr. Assad did nothing to prevent the sprawling Iranian influence in his country despite Israeli attacks. And Iran’s response to Israeli attacks has been only to deepen its footprints. As a result, Syria has emerged as a new theatre in the Israel-Iran geopolitical contest in West Asia, which could outlive the Syrian civil war. Already, the conflict has spilled from Syria into the Mediterranean and Red Sea waters where both sides target each other’s ships. With Israel determined to contain Iran’s growing influence in the region, at a time when the U.S. and other Western powers are reaching out to Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal which could leave it more powerful economically, the Israel-Iran contest is set to intensify further.


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