Israel’s shadow campaign in Syria ‘is a strategy that yields only partial results’

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The latest reminder of Israel’s shadow war in Syria aimed at preventing Iran from installing advanced weapons and military bases in Syria or transferring them to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror organization came on July 22 when Syrian state media reported that three regime soldiers associated with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime were killed in an Israeli airstrike that hit targets in the Sayyidah Zaynab area south of Damascus.

The Syrian report describes an Israeli modus operandi that has also appeared in previous reports: missiles fired from the direction of the Israeli Golan (it is unclear whether they were fired from an aircraft or from the ground), hitting a number of positions in and around the country’s capital.

According to the Alma Center, an Israeli defense research center, the strikes may have targeted a shipment of precision-guided missile components intended for Hezbollah’s precision-guided missile program and independent production of unmanned aerial vehicles by Hezbollah.

Since it began in 2013 amid Syria’s civil war, Israel’s shadow campaign – dubbed the interwar campaign in the defense establishment – has seen thousands of munitions fired on targets in Syria and made Israel the only state in the world to consistently direct its firepower at Iranian entrenchment efforts in the Middle East.

Iran, for its part, appears determined to continue its entrenchment activities with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Hossein Salami reportedly visiting Syria last week, possibly to plan next steps. from Iran to Syria.

“The campaign between the wars is a strategy, not a tactical event,” Lt. Col. (Retired) Orna Mizrahi, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told JNS. .

“It developed over time; adjustments were made based on changing conditions. Strategically, its main objective is to delay the next war, while reducing enemy military capabilities and creating deterrence while creating more comfortable conditions for Israel at the start of any potential future war,” said Mizrahi, a former deputy adviser at National Security for Foreign Policy at the National Security Council.

Advanced weapons are most likely to attract Israeli airstrikes, as are attempts to build terrorist or military bases by the Iranian-led axis near the Israeli border. Weapons warehouses containing weapons intended for Israel’s enemies – whether Hezbollah or Iran-backed militias in Syria – appear to have been many targets over the years.

Yet, Mizrahi noted, Israel tries to act with precision, avoiding non-combatants as much as possible.

A reported Israeli attack on a weapons storage site outside Damascus, Syria on July 22, 2022. Credit: Alma Center.

“Deterrence equation in place”

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has threatened to retaliate if its operatives are killed in Syria by Israeli strikes.

Mizrahi, who was also a former intelligence analyst with the Israel Defense Forces’ Military Intelligence Research Division, said some who had high hopes that Israel’s campaign would neutralize the Iranian presence in Syria or would stop all arms transfers were disappointed.

“The main problem with the IDF campaign is that it yields relatively partial results. It is not an ultimate solution. It can bring about a total change. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have accomplishments,” she explained. “Although these achievements are limited, there is no doubt that they have pushed problematic elements in the Syrian Golan close to Israel and damaged Iranian entrenchment capabilities in Syria. He reduced the flow of weapons to Hezbollah and forced the Iran-Hezbollah axis to change its working methods. Yet this is not a fundamental change in the situation.

The question of how long Israel’s interwar campaign can continue – and the extent of influence it has on the ground – is a fixed dilemma for the defense establishment, Mizrahi said. .

“The conditions of the Syrian Civil War allowed the IDF to operate primarily in the Syrian arena, but this campaign is not as active in Lebanon due to the [mutual] the deterrence equation in place between Israel and Hezbollah,” she assessed, adding that “there is still debate about its influence, its impact on enemy capabilities and the extent of deterrence that it generates”.

Multiple actors in Syria could, in theory, alter their response to Israel’s campaign and affect cost-benefit calculations in Israel. “The decisions of Syria, Iran or Russia could change,” Mizrahi noted.

Syrian President Bashar Assad. Credit: Photowalking/Shutterstock.

“The balance could change”

On May 13, international media reported that amid growing tensions between Jerusalem and Moscow over the war in Ukraine, a Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missile battery stationed in northern Syria fired for the first time on Israeli Air Force aircraft. .

“Israel tried to walk a fine line, preserving relations with Russia as a great power,” Mizrahi said. “In the past, the assessment here in Israel was that Russia allowed Israeli strikes because of the tension that exists between Russia and Iran over who controls Syria. In this context, it was very comfortable for Russia that Israel was working against Iran, thus strengthening Russian influence in Syria and making it more important than Iranian influence.

This could change, however, due to Russia’s war on Ukraine, which has prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to forge closer relations with the Iranian regime.

“The balance could change,” Mizrachi said. “Still, I think that Russia has no interest in creating friction with Israel when it is so heavily engaged in Ukraine. The Russian air base and naval base in Syria are very important to it. Russia considers Israel as a regional military power that must be taken into consideration and that can harm it. Therefore, they suggest that Israel should act differently in Syria, but they do not take significant military or diplomatic measures to force Israel to stop its campaign “, he added.

Although a number of observers have already praised the Syria campaign or claimed that its time is up, the fact is that Israel is pursuing it, she noted.

“Even if less comfortable conditions arise, the campaign can continue. But I won’t say it can go on forever. Circumstances may change enough to force Israel to reconsider, whether it is a Russian decision to activate air defense systems or allow Syria to do so,” Mizrahi warned.

Syria is in possession of Russian-made S-300 batteries.

“For the moment, the Israeli campaign continues, and that’s normal. It should last as long as possible,” she said. “He has assets, even if they are limited and partial.”

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