On Wednesday afternoon, an Iranian ammunition depot in Al-Bukamal, Syria was hit by an airstrike. This attack comes after Israel reportedly conducted four air strikes in Syria between November 12 and November 20, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. While Israel has reportedly carried out thousands of strikes in Syria and neighboring Iraq in recent years, the frequency, intensity, and toll of these recent attacks are unprecedented.
The last month marks a peak in Israel’s war against Iran’s presence in Syria. Air strikes have targeted advanced air defense systems, surface-to-air missiles, reconnaissance sites, and warehouses, among other targets. Notably, the attacks carried out late on the night of November 20 hit the “Glass House,” the nickname given to the headquarters of Iran’s Quds Force in Syria at Damascus International Airport. The choice of this target, an important symbol of Iran’s presence and regular stopping point for Iranian VIPs in Syria, highlights this shift in Israel’s security policy.
There are a couple reasons for this shift. First, Israel has come to see that Iran is not forsaking its project in Syria, and further may be pursuing more sophisticated means of threatening Israel’s northern border. This week’s report that Iran is moving missiles into Iraq only reinforces this perception. Beyond this, Iran was bold enough not just to build its forces there but to deploy them by firing four rockets at civilian targets in Israel. For Israel, this crossed a red line.
Israel has been carrying out a campaign-between-the-wars since 2013 to prevent Iran and its proxies, including Hezbollah, from obtaining advanced weapons to use against the Jewish state and from entrenching themselves in Syria. The attacks have three main purposes. The first two are simple, while the final goal requires further examination. They are:
- To diminish Iranian capabilities being shipped to Hezbollah and other Iranian militias working to open a low-intensity military front threatening Israel’s northern border;
- To maintain Israel’s freedom of action and air supremacy in its neighborhood and the Middle East in general by minimizing Syrian military capabilities, more specifically anti-aircraft missile sites and their support systems; and
- To send a message of deterrence to three main actors in the region: Assad’s regime, Iran and its emissaries, and Russia.
The Message to Syria
Of the three, the message to Assad is the most consistent and straightforward: The cost of Assad’s relationship with Iran will outweigh the benefits. Since the beginning of the campaign-between-the-wars, Israel has been “punishing” the Syrian regime for allowing Iranian forces and proxies to strengthen their positions in Syria, from which they can strike Israel. The November strikes underlined this message. Israel had previously targeted mostly Syrian military bases and capabilities. In November, the target list was upgraded to also include symbols and assets of the Syrian regime. This way, the threat to Assad was more tangible and direct. The air raids weaken the Syrian army’s capabilities; distract Assad’s capabilities from coping with opposition forces, ISIS, and al-Qaida in the north and east of Syria; and keep this war-ridden country in grave economic instability.
During the November raids, Israel also reportedly targeted significant air defense capabilities, especially surface-to-air missiles, that threaten Israel’s strategic dominance over Lebanese and Syrian airspace. The destruction of these capabilities, mostly purchased from Russia, weighs heavily on the Syrian budget, weakens Syria’s capability to defend itself, and damages its prestige. Further, any outpost that deployed Iranian militia forces on or near the Israeli border was heavily struck.
The November 12 attack targeted the home of Islamic Jihad’s deputy leader Akram El-Ajouri in the Mezzeh neighborhood of Damascus. Al-Ajouri, responsible for coordination between Gaza and Syria, was not hurt, while his son and one other person were killed, and another 10 people were wounded. This attack, if it is of Israel’s doing, likely sought to increase the tension between Assad and militant Palestinian opposition groups operating in Syria and Gaza.
The Message to Moscow
Moscow intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 on Assad’s side, and Israel and Russia have coordinated their activities in Syrian air space to avoid any unwanted conflict. Russia has sought to make Syria whole again under Assad’s regime, to stabilize the country, and to root out the remaining opposition forces holding out against Assad’s rule.
The Israeli raids in November sent a clear message to Moscow that unless the Iranian element is taken out of the equation, Syria will remain an unstable battleground. The raids are also a reminder of Russia’s commitment to Israel to keep the Iranian Quds Forces outside of the 50-mile radius from Israel’s border. These raids underscore that, if the Russians cannot uphold their side of this understanding, then Israel will wreak havoc in Syria. Putin seeks a political resolution and stability in Syria, and the Russians understand that Syria has no prospect of recovery from its civil war amid the constant friction between Israel and Iran.
The Message to Iran
The November 20 attack was most intense and meaningful of the four in November. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Israeli air strikes killed 23 people, likely including 16 Iranians. The strike was carried out in response to four rockets that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said were launched by an Iranian proxy force from Syria toward northern Israel. All four rockets were launched from within 50 miles of Israel’s border and were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, causing no damage or injuries.
That attack sent a clear signal to Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Forces, that Israel will not tolerate such a blunt transgression of its sovereignty. It emphasized that Israel will not back down from an all-out campaign, even war, if Iran pursues its strategic goal to threaten Israel’s northern border from Syria and Iraq. While the ongoing tit-for-tat exchanges mostly hit military targets, in this case Israel “took the gloves off.” While previous raids mostly damaged buildings and infrastructure, Israel probably expected this raid to inflict Iranian casualties, thus raising the stakes of the conflict.
The message was also intended to reverberate in the headquarters of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. As Iran faces unrest at home — and amid major popular demonstrations in Iraq — Israel is willing to match or even exceed Iran’s aggressive moves. For Khamenei, the prospect of large investments repeatedly being destroyed in Syria may be a difficult one, politically, as his domestic economy plummets. The contrast between these recent raids, which reportedly killed 16 Iranians, and the relative lack of an Iranian reaction highlights that it is difficult for Iran to respond in kind to Israeli escalations. Taken together, the strikes seek to convince Khamenei and Soleimani, the latter of whom Israeli policymakers judge to be inclined toward a more aggressive interpretation of Tehran’s strategies, of the need to rein in Iran’s ambitions in Syria.
Potential Gaps in the Strategy
The strategy Israel has pursued toward Iran and its proxies in Syria is likely the best of its available options for opposing Iran’s project in Syria. Still, regarding each of its three targets in Syria, Israel’s strategy contains important gaps.
First, as Israel works to diminish the Syrian state’s military capabilities, it risks merely pushing the Assad regime deeper into its dependency on Iran. Assad has few alternatives to Tehran in seeking outside support for its continued survival. The more Israel strikes Syrian military positions, the greater this dependency becomes. For Israel, degrading Syrian military power in Syria may come at the expense of allowing Iran an even more central role.
Second, the logic underpinning Israel’s messaging to Russia may misread Moscow’s incentives in Syria. By striking Iranian targets in Syria, especially those near its border, Israel hopes to pressure Russia to do more to contain Iran and its proxies in the country. But while Russia has been fast to criticize Israel for its strikes in Syria, it may quietly prefer to see Israel doing the dirty work of lessening Iranian power there. While they are partners in upholding the Assad regime, in some ways the Russians and Iranians are competitors in Syria, especially when looking toward state-rebuilding. Should Israeli strikes push the Iranians to play less of a role, the Russians would be the first to fill the void they would leave. Further, Israeli strikes in Syrian military facilities create business opportunities for the Russian arms industry. The Syrian regime will need to replace its destroyed weapons systems, and Russian manufacturers stand ready to supply new ones. Russia, while publicly opposed to Israeli strikes, might actually benefit from a laissez-faire policy toward these attacks.
Finally, regarding Iran, Israel hopes its strikes will push Tehran to abandon its project in Syria. But Iran has shown no willingness so far to consider this. Instead, it has simply worked to make its arms shipments more difficult to detect. The search-and-destroy campaign demands excellent intelligence capabilities on Israel’s part to uncover clandestine shipments sent by air or land to Syria through Iraq. Fine-grained intelligence is also necessary to allow the air strike to be effective and to minimize collateral damage and casualties. This poses a great challenge to Israel because, in time, Iran and its Syrian counterparts can find new, creative ways to mask their supply chain to Syria and avoid detection. Further, as Israel works to push back Iranian proxies from positions near its northern border, its successes create additional complications. When the fight between Iran and Israel in Syria moves closer to the Iraqi border, Israeli air strikes become riskier, Iranian intelligence capabilities become stronger, and Iran’s ability to deny responsibility for missile launches becomes greater. Finally, Iran cannot really be deterred by threats to the integrity of the Syrian state because it views the Assad regime only as a useful path by which it can increase its regional power.
Meanwhile, the Iranians are likely betting that sooner or later Israel will make a mistake, and one of its strikes will cause Russian casualties or damage to Russian facilities in Syria. The September 2018 downing of a Russian military plane by Syrian air defenses following an Israeli strike is an important reference. That incident, in which Israeli forces did not even directly hit their Russian counterparts, provoked a serious diplomatic response from Moscow. While the de-confliction mechanism in place has avoided conflict since then, it is not foolproof, and a direct Israeli hit on Russian positions or personnel would prove dire for Israeli-Russian coordination in Syria. The Iranians are playing the odds, calculating that sooner or later, such a hit will occur.
Israel’s campaign-between-the-wars sits for now in purgatory. Given the gaps in its strategic messaging, Israeli deterrence, in and of itself, will likely not produce the total Iranian withdrawal for which Israel is hoping. The pressures Iran faces by demonstrations at home and in Iraq are perhaps the likelier trigger for Tehran to reconsider its strategy. The best Israel can do, for now, is purgatory, while hoping that broader developments in the region deliver something more decisive.