Israel is beating the drums of war again, this time over Syria. On February 10 the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) carried out the most aggressive Israeli use of force in Syria thus far. After having bombed a drone base in retaliation for an alleged incursion by an Iranian drone, Israel retaliated for the shooting down of one of its fighter planes by hitting the main Syrian command-and-control bunker and five Iranian communications facilities.
Israel has been laying the political groundwork for a military escalation in Syria since mid-2017. That’s when Israeli officials began to repeat two interlinked political themes: that Iran must be prevented from establishing permanent bases and implanting its proxy forces in the Syrian Golan Heights, and that Iran is secretly building factories in Syria and Lebanon to provide Hezbollah with missiles capable of precise targeting.
But the evidence suggests that the reasons publicly avowed by Israeli officials are not the real motive behind the escalation of Israel’s air attacks and ground combat presence in Syria.
Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer has vowed that Israel would not permit Iran or Hezbollah to establish permanent bases anywhere in Syria, but no convincing evidence of any such permanent base has come to light — only an aerial photo of a site that was admitted to be a Syrian army facility with several vehicle storage sheds. However, the Syrian army is definitely planning such bases in Golan. In January, Syrian army forces backed by Hezbollah troops captured a key military post at Beit Jinn near both the Lebanese and Syrian borders in the Northern Golan.
A portion of Golan is currently occupied by Israel, which took it from Syria in 1967. It was annexed by Israel in 1981 and populated with Israeli settlers roughly equal in numbers to its original Syrian population. Israel has expressed the fear that Syria’s recent moves could threaten Israel’s occupation in Golan. IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot declared in January that Israel “can’t ignore the fact that Hezbollah, the Shiite militias and Iran perceive themselves on the winning side in Syria, together with Bashar Assad, and share his desire to return to the Golan Heights.”
Israeli officials have expressed a determination to establish de facto Israeli control in what they have called a “buffer zone” or “safe zone” covering much of the Syrian Golan. Israel had already begun laying the groundwork two years ago by arming anti-Assad opposition groups only to see much of their progress reversed by more recent Syrian military advances. The buffer zone objective will certainly require a growing number of Israeli military operations to push back against Syrian and Shiite militias in that area.
Israeli ambitions are not limited to the Syrian Golan. The IDF is determined to penetrate more deeply into Syria in order to limit Iranian and Hezbollah freedom of action there. The long-term military aim, as IDF Chief Eizenkot declared in his January speech, is to “push the Iranians back to Iran.” More concretely, Israeli officials are committed to preventing Iran from establishing a land corridor connecting Tehran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean through Iraq and Syria.
That aim has already led to at least 100 Israeli air strikes against hundreds of targets in Syria since January 2013, including convoys carrying arms to Lebanon, weapons storage sites and Hezbollah targets. Netanyahu told NATO ambassadors in January that Israel would continue to use military action to prevent “the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah from Syrian territory.”
Israeli insists that the IDF must halt the flow of more precise weapons into Hezbollah hands. Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, charged last year that Iran has built secret workshops in Lebanon to construct advanced missiles for Hezbollah. Israel now claims, however that Iran has shifted its strategy from building such workshops in Lebanon to building them in Syria, and that the IDF struck two such workshops in Syria in 2018.
But there is no evidence to support the Israeli claim of Iranian weapons factories in Lebanon or Syria. The first report of such factories in Lebanon — allegedly buried 160 feet underground — was supposedly based on an acknowledgement by an unidentified deputy to Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari. But it was published in a Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Jarida, which is known to have frequently carried stories leaked by the Israeli government. An Israeli Defense official claimed to the International Crisis Group last November that Iran was still pursuing such factories in Syria but offered no specifics to substantiate this allegation.
In fact, there was no need for Iran to set up new underground facilities for the manufacture of advanced weapons in Lebanon or Syria, because the Syrian government had been making such weapons for Hezbollah for many years. As Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, former head of Israel Military Intelligence’s research division, told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in mid-2010, Hezbollah had already received several hundred Syrian-made M600 missiles at that time. These are clones of the Iranian Fateh-110 missiles with a range of 250 km, a 500-kg warhead and highly accurate guidance system.
In 2014 the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, said Hezbollah’s missile capabilities had already improved so much that it could “attack any target in any part of the occupied territories with a high precision and with a very low margin of error.”
Israel is thus planning a long-term war in Syria several years too late to prevent those “game-changing” weapons from falling into the hands of Hezbollah. It is as if Israel were organizing a big, expensive — and lethal — operation to shut the barn door years after the cows are known to have left the barn.
Furthermore, Israeli officials are refusing to acknowledge that Iran’s objective in building up and improving Hezbollah’s missile force has always been the deterrence of Israeli or US military attack on Iran or an Israeli attack on Hezbollah. Iranian officials began providing thousands of rockets to Hezbollah to bolster its own deterrent capacity when its own missile deterrent force was still in its infancy. At that time, Israel’s anti-missile system might well have intercepted any missiles it might fire at Israel, as Ephraim Kam, a specialist on Iran at Israel’s Jaffe Centre for Strategic Studies, observed in December 2004.
Israeli officials have long boasted that they have effectively deterred Hezbollah from a missile attack on Israel. But what is never discussed is the need to deter Israel’s use of military force. The IDF began planning its attack on Hezbollah in detail more than a year before the 2006 campaign. One of Israel’s aims in launching the attack, according to strategic analyst Edward Luttwak, who has deep ties with Israel, was to destroy enough of Hezbollah’s missile force in a lightning offensive to persuade the George W. Bush administration to drop its opposition to an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites.
Although Israeli officials would never admit it officially, by thwarting Israel and building an increasingly powerful arsenal of missiles, Hezbollah has established a relatively stable peace with Israel for more than a decade. As Seth Cropsey of the pro-Israel Hudson Institute has reluctantly acknowledged, “Hezbollah is the only force that Israel has faced that has extracted an operational and strategic stalemate from the IDF.”
The war that Israel is planning in Syria is at least in part a response to its inability to use force against Hezbollah in Lebanon. And it is not going to alter the fundamental power equation either in Syria or between Israel and Hezbollah.