It’s Too Soon for Israel to Declare Victory in Syria

May 11, 2020 | Jonathan Spyer
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In the past few weeks, IDF airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria appear to have intensified. After last Tuesday’s attack on a military outpost, unnamed Israeli defense officials told the media that Tehran has begun to withdraw its forces from the war-torn country. Jonathan Spyer comments:

[T]he long Israeli campaign against Iranian attempts to consolidate [its power] in Syria has clearly been partially successful. This may be discerned by the absence in Syria of the kind of missile and rocket infrastructure with which Tehran has managed to equip its Hizballah franchise in Lebanon. Israel’s superior air power, extensive intelligence coverage, and willingness to act boldly against Iranian efforts over the last half decade have ensured this. The Iranian desire to construct in Syria a situation analogous to that in Lebanon, where de-facto mutual deterrence exists between Israel and the Iran-aligned forces, is clear and discernible. Israel has prevented this.

Nevertheless, Spyer cautions against declaring victory, because the Islamic Republic has pursued a strategy in Syria, as in Iraq, that goes beyond the establishment of a missile silos and military bases. Tehran has developed a vast war-making infrastructure that includes its own forces, foreign fighters recruited from as far afield as Pakistan, and Syrian militia units under Iranian control—some, but not all, of which are part of Damascus’ official security forces. By doing so, the Islamic Republic has embedded itself in a way that will be difficult to reverse:

All this together . . . has resulted in an existing contiguous area of Iranian control stretching from the [Syria-Iraq border] to just east of Quneitra [on the Israeli border], with facilities elsewhere in the country, for the most part woven into the fabric of the Assad regime’s own structures. This infrastructure—and Syria more generally—from the Iranian point of view, constitutes a central, not a peripheral interest. Without it, Iran would lose a vital access route to its franchise in Lebanon, to the Mediterranean Sea, and to the borders of Israel.

The nature of this project is such that large parts of it are not vulnerable to Israeli air power, unless Israel wants to also take on the Assad regime, which it does not. The parts that are, and that constitute the most direct threat, have been hit hard, and will no doubt continue to be so. Put these two points together, and what you have is something resembling the situation in Gaza writ large—namely, a reality in which Israel strikes periodically at its enemies at little cost to itself, and in so doing disrupts and sets back their plans, without delivering a fatal blow.

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