Looking closely at the situation in Syria, it is safe to deduce that Israel is seeking political and military intervention. It is also logical to assume that it is willing to take risks and challenge the current status quo. This conclusion follows from observing the pattern of Israeli military operations in Syria since July 2017, Israel’s diplomatic agenda during the past few months, and the political and military content of Israel’s strategic methods.
INTENSIFIED DIPLOMATIC CAMPAIGN: Iran’s expanding influence in Syria has turned into a priority on Israel’s foreign policy agenda. The subject topped the latest talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on 23 August and during the 15 October visit of Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoygu to Israel.
Israel has also attempted to drive the attention of the US administration to the potential threats of Iran’s increasing power in Syria. A delegation comprising security officials from Mossad and Israel’s Military Intelligence was in Washington 18 August to meet with their US counterparts to discuss the subject. On 16 July, the case was the focus of talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September when she met with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
ALTERNATIVE MILITARY PATTERN: The first Israeli military action after the July ceasefire differed from the usual operations conducted during the past few years of Syria’s civil war. According to media reports, an Israeli air strike hit a research and/or production facility close to Messyaf in Hama on 7 September. The establishment was affiliated to a Syrian scientific research centre conducting studies on developing strategic and modern weapons. The exact mission of the facility remains somehow vague but many reports indicate it produces missiles for the Syrian army and Hizbullah. Other reports, nonetheless, said it produced chemical weapons.
Regardless the target of the Israeli air strike, the operation is unorthodox, at least diplomatically. For four years, before the ceasefire, Israel’s air strikes hit random targets. Now it is aiming at tactical targets, which means that Israel is adamant to cripple Syria and Hizbullah’s strategic abilities.
More importantly, however, is Israel’s willingness to escalate its military operations despite possible risks on the part of Iran, Syria and Hizbullah, or even severing ties altogether with Russia.
It is interesting to note that the air strike against the Syrian facility took place during the biggest Israeli military exercises in the past 20 years. The timing of the air strike indicates Israel is upping its readiness against any retaliation.
The air strike also appears to be an attempt to send a message of discontent to Russia, since the destroyed facility was in the vicinity of a strong Russian military presence — less than 80 kilometres from Khmeimim Airbase run by the Russian Air Force. Israel was telling Russia that it would not stand handtied as Moscow ignored efforts by Syria and Hizbullah to expand their military might. This also explains the 16 October Israeli downing of a Syrian anti-aircraft jet in retaliation to a missile fired on Israel’s Air Force jets — a recurrent incident Israel usually ignored in the past — during Shoygu’s visit to Israel.
SHIFTING STRATEGIC METHODS: Israel has changed its political and military tactics in the latest year to redefine the nature of the challenges it is facing to the north. It is currently seeking to remove the defining line between Iran’s power in Lebanon, through Hizbullah, and its influence in Syria. Israel prefers to deal with the two scenarios in one theatre. No longer are there different rules of engagement, rather “one northern front” comprising Syria, Lebanon, Hizbullah, and Bashar Al-Assad regime together with its allies.
Observing Israel’s shifting strategic methods and the change in Iran’s agenda makes it possible to construe Tel Aviv’s next escalating move. It is highly possible, in this sense, that any confrontation between Israel and Lebanon will stretch to Syria, and vice versa.
POLITICAL SCENARIOS: Development on the ground indicates Israel will follow one of two political scenarios, each reflecting a different strategic method.
The first scenario is an Israeli contingency plan that may risk an unintentional escalation. Increasing Iranian influence in Syria, coupled with the US and Russia’s inaction towards minimising Tehran’s role may lead Israel’s decision-makers to initiate a pre-emptive political or military strike to this end — the air strike on Messyaf being a case in point.
Tel Aviv will impose a new set of red lines regarding Iran’s position in Syria and its efforts to increase the strategic abilities of its allies. The red lines may be imposed on Iran’s deployment of sophisticated weaponry on Syrian ground; rebuilding Syria’s and Hizbullah’s capabilities to produce weapons of mass destruction; and deploying Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in naval and air bases.
Israel’s contingency plan will require a concoction of diplomatic and military procedures — more of the latter in fact. This scenario may end up putting Israel in direct confrontation with Syria and Iran since its pre-emptive strikes will like hit Tehran’s allies in Syria, such as Hizbullah, and their strategic infrastructure before they retaliate.
On the longer term, this contingency plan will result in shattering the relationship between Tel Aviv and Moscow and may drive the latter to unchain Syria’s willingness to retaliate. On the regional level, Israel’s activities on the Syrian front may confuse ongoing efforts to impose stability on Syria.
The second scenario sees Israel’s accepting an unofficial military presence for Iran in Syria. It will be conditional, of course, and on terms agreed upon with Russia and the international community.
Unconfirmed reports tell of Russian efforts to reach an agreed-upon, bilateral formula that guarantees Iranian-backed military presence in Syria that at the same time calms Israel’s fears that Syria may turn into a platform for Iranian aggression.
If these reports are to be trusted, they indicate that Moscow aspires to protect Al-Assad’s regime through preventing a war between Tel Aviv and Damascus, although at this point it is difficult to assess how committed Russia is to Israel’s demands, the latter’s willingness to delegate Russia to negotiate its interests, or its readiness to concord with Russia’s viewpoint.
A number of conflicting factors should be carefully calculated. Parties in the ongoing battle are either working towards a ceasefire to prevent an all-out war, or are accelerating a confrontation.
On the one hand, some believe that the existence of a strong negotiator such as Russia in this conflict minimises the risk of confrontation between Israel and the Iranian-backed camp, which if it happens will destroy Russia’s efforts to restore the strength of the Syrian regime. On the other hand, Israel’s continuing air strikes against strategic targets will result in inevitable escalation. Syria and Iran will hit back and Russia will not intervene to stop this retaliation. A scenario similar to the dynamics that led up to the 2006 Lebanon War will loom fast.
Both Israel and Iran are strong regional players on the Syrian field. Their interests are conflicting, but the two will unyieldingly go to great lengths to achieve them. Regretfully, the two countries are pursuing their aspirations in Syria in the absence of a security system that regulates their moves. Consequently, a simple miscalculation by either party will result in escalation, even if unintentional.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly