Israel Strikes Syria And Sets New Red Lines

Israel's northern border with Syria is heating up as the regime looks toward an endgame

Syrian fighting seen from the Golan Heights in Sept., 2016 — REUTERS
Mar 20, 2017 at 2:19 PM ET

Israeli jets have reportedly bombed a number of targets in Syria including a Hezbollah weapons convoy and Syrian military sites, after a weekend of escalations between the neighboring nations.

The Lebanese news service Al Mayadeen reported that the early Monday-morning strike on Syria — the third such incident in as many days — killed Yasser al-Sayed, reported to have been a military commander allied with the regime. It was the latest in a string of attacks, Israeli military experts noted, intended as a message of warning directed at both the Iranian-backed Syrian regime and its Russian allies.

“Russia got the messages it needed to receive from Israel: Israel will not allow anyone, including Russia, to get in the way of implementing our military mission,” said Brigadier General Nitzan Nuriel, a former director of counter-terrorism in the Israeli prime minister’s office.

Israel’s red lines have been constant throughout the six years of civil war — it would hinder any movement of Hezbollah weapons across Syria. Israeli media accused President Bashar al-Assad of crossing those lines on Friday when Damascus launched missiles at Israeli warplanes that were meant to destroy a weapons convoy destined for the terrorist group, Hezbollah. One missile was intercepted by Israel’s anti-ballistic Arrow missile defense battery in the first reported use of the system. This weekend was the first case in which the Syrian regime directly confronted the Israeli military and in which Israel confirmed the attack since the Syrian war started six years ago.

Assad has been emboldened in recent weeks by military and political support from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Russia pushed for peace negotiations that may involve creating a federalization of the country, by which the country would be divided into autonomous regions. With Russian backing, Assad has turned the tide of the conflict, reclaiming critical territory from ISIS and other rebel groups. The regime on Monday retook parts of Damascus that had been captured by rebels the previous day.

At the same time, Putin has been cozying up with Israel and discreetly coordinating each others’ security activities so as to avoid crossing one another in Syria.

But the recent escalations have been a snag for the Israeli-Russian collaboration. Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency quoted Russia’s deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying that Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren “was asked about this” incident after the ministry “expressed concern” over the Israeli-Syrian exchange of fire.

Israeli military experts estimate that it could be weeks, maybe months, before the Syrian regime technically wins the civil war, though they also expect that terrorist groups may continue to actively wreak havoc and violence there for potentially another six years.

Israel has watched the unfolding of the Syrian war from the sidelines. It has sporadically attacked targets in retaliation for the Syrian mortar rounds which occasionally land on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, or to intercept Hezbollah convoys transferring advanced weapons to the group’s arsenal in Syria.

“Syria’s forceful response to the Israeli attacks changed the rules of the game,” Syria’s ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari said on Syrian state TV on Sunday.

It was “appropriate and in line with Israel’s terrorist operation… Israel will now think a million times [before striking again],” he said, just hours after an earlier statement by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman that threatened to destroy Syrian air defense systems for targeting the Israeli aircraft during the bombing run Friday.

“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Lieberman said on Israel Radio. “The Syrians must understand that they are held responsible for these arms transfers to Hezbollah and that if they continue to allow them then we will do what we have to do.”

“We know exactly who is doing what and where,” an Israeli Northern Command officer near a military outpost in the Golan Heights, told Vocativ earlier this month, occasionally interrupted by the boom of shelling taking place several miles. He requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the press.

Israel has subtly shifted its strategy over the past weeks in what it says is in response to Assad’s increasing confidence, and in anxious anticipation of the groups that will fill the country’s many power vacuums once the war is declared over.

“In the short run, we might see ISIS warriors taking over some territories in southern parts of the Golan Heights, although those radicals have been careful not to engage in a direct confrontation in Israel,” said Eyal Zisser, a Syria and Lebanon expert at Tel Aviv University.

But Israel’s deeper, and perhaps more realistic, fear is the longer-term prospect that “the Syrian regime, with the support of Iran and Hezbollah, might want to make a comeback,” said Zisser.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had “made it clear” to Putin that Israel wants to prevent any Syrian settlement from leaving “Iran and its proxies with a military presence” in Syria in the long-term.

Israel has leverage with Russia because its desire to promotes its image as a global power is far outweighed by its hopes that the United States will step in to reclaim the position, said Zvi Magen, the former Israeli ambassador to Russia and Ukraine.

“The Russians are very nervous about the future, they’re waiting for the American comeback, which they’re hoping to get by way of Israel,” said Magen. “Syria is not the same Syria from years ago, they now need more help than ever in attempting to control what they’ve started.”

Syria is the bridge between Iran and its proxy group, Hezbollah, which headquartered in Lebanon. The line running east to west from Iran through Syria to Lebanon has been dubbed the “Shiite Axis,” as Iran and Hezbollah are predominantly Shiite. Syria, too, is ruled by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism—though the country, like most of the rest of the Arab world, is majority Sunni.

The Iranian regime contributed to the birth of Hezbollah in the early 1980s and has since sustained the group with Iranian weapons, money, and training. Israel and Hezbollah fought a short, intense war in 2006, which was unexpectedly difficult for Israeli forces due to the sophistication of Hezbollah’s weaponry.

Since the civil war began in 2011, Hezbollah has been intervening in Syria to save the Assad regime, losing a number of fighters and advisers as a result of the fighting. Israel estimates that Hezbollah has thousands of more reserve fighters than it did in 2006. It also has hundreds of drones and roughly ten times the amount of rockets, that have farther range capabilities. Those include Scuds, which can hit targets across Israel. Israel also fears that in the chaos of the Syrian war, the organization could get its hands on Syria’s chemical weapons.

In the meantime, both Israel and Hezbollah, say the next war is inevitable.

“We are taking action to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, and we will spare no effort to prevent that in the future,” said Israel’s army chief Gadi Eizenkot on Sunday. “Hezbollah has been violating UN resolutions and is gearing for war.”