Why Israel Sees Iranian Presence in Syria As a Threat

16.03.2018

With so many actors involved in the Syrian situation, each of them pursuing their own interests, misreading, misinterpreting and misjudging intentions, plans, facts and actions, the risks are huge and will remain so as the strife in Syria continues. The different actors’ agendas conflict and “hotlines” do not always exist.

The seven years’ war in Syria has changed dramatically the demographic, political, economic and military landscape. The significant changes include the presence of foreign military forces, among them those of the neighboring Turkey and Iran, or those of the US and Russia. The Iranian case is unique from Israel’s point of view as Iran is the only state denying Israel’s right to exist. Ever since the revolution in 1979, the regime in Teheran has employed various strategies ranging from terror through arming sub-state organization with strong anti-Israel agenda to attempts to obtain nuclear military capability coupled with that of ballistic delivery.

That explains Israel’s growing concern as to the Iranian presence developing in Syria beyond the political one. Under the smoke rising from the battlefield and with the pretext of upholding the Assad regime, Iran has pushed into Syria its military advisers, small fighting units, including those composed of Shiites, though not necessarily Iranian, and teams engaged in planning the expansion of military hardware production. These activities came in addition to the continuation of deliveries of heavy arms from Iran to the Hizballah via Syria which Israel vowed to stop.

Though the Iranians refrain for the time being from erecting “independent” Iranian bases in Syria, the presence of Iranian and Hizballah combatants in the space between Damascus and the Israeli-Syrian frontier grew in the recent couple of years. This became more evident with downing by Israel of an Iranian drone over Israel’s airspace on February 10, 2018. The incident ignited an accelerated diplomatic activity, principally between President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu. The conversation between the two leaders halted further Israeli retaliatory action after one of its fighter jets was downed in action on February10.

The events on February 10 show the willingness of Iran to test Israel’s “red lines,” the capabilities and willingness to employ them. They also test the uneasy Iranian-Russian “co-existence” in Syria, as the Iranian activity may not correspond to Russia’s agenda and policies in Syria. Israel is confronted with evidence to Iran’s growing willingness to take risks in Syria, building military facilities for such as those attacked allegedly by Israel in September and December 2017 or those exposed by the American Fox TV network on February 28, 2018.

The base near Damascus reported by Fox is an example of complexity of the situation in Syria and the difficulty in reading correctly the intelligence gathered and taking decisions based on policy considerations, not just those related to specific intelligence but to the wider picture. While there was no doubt as to the Iranian involvement and actions in launching the drone, the overall situation concerning the Iranian-built base near Damascus allow Israel a greater flexibility as to how to react to the facts on the ground. The exposure of the construction of the base may also give the other actors involved an opportunity to reconsider decisions and activities.

With so many actors involved in the Syrian situation, each of them pursuing their own interests, misreading, misinterpreting and misjudging intentions, plans, facts and actions, the risks are huge and will remain so as the strife in Syria continues. The different actors’ agendas conflict and “hotlines” do not always exist.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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