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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Iran: Playing the Long Game in Syria

Syrian troops celebrate their retaking of a strategic high ground in Dar’a province in Syria, along the Israel-Syria border, July 17, 2018. (Photo: SANA via AP, File)

In late July and early August of this year, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s military, with support from Iranian and Russian forces, regained full control of the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border. As a result, the war in Syria has now entered a dangerous new phase for the Jewish state. While the war appears to be winding down for Moscow and Damascus, the conflict between Tehran and Jerusalem is heating up.

Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin have achieved their goal of regime preservation: Damascus now controls two-thirds of Syria’s territory and about four-fifths of its population. Assad can target or negotiate with the remaining rebel holdouts – Idlib province jihadists in the northwest and the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Front (SDF) in the east – at his leisure.

For Iran, however, the Syrian war is merely entering a new, more important, phase. Saving the Assad regime was a necessary step to inaugurate Tehran’s long-term agenda: using its military presence in Syria to assist Hezbollah in Lebanon and turn Iran into a “front-line state” capable of targeting Israel from a distance of a few dozen (rather than hundreds) of miles.

Iranian Infiltration

Iran’s anti-Israel campaign in Syria is multifaceted and flexible, with Tehran concentrating on some goals while delaying others in response to the pushback it receives from Jerusalem.

  • Tehran is proceeding cautiously toward its aim of opening a second front against Israel in the Syrian Golan. Damascus conquered the remaining rebel pockets in southwest Syria primarily with its own units and Russian air support. Iranian-backed forces participated in the fighting, but Tehran has neither flooded the Syrian Golan with Hezbollah or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fighters nor has it established Iranian bases there. Instead, Russia has deployed military police in the area to enforce its proposal that non-Syrian forces stay at least 85 kilometers (52 miles) from the Israeli border.

  • Iran cannot for now fully implement its goal of creating a “land bridge” from Tehran to the Mediterranean, as U.S. troops and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in eastern Syria block the most practical and direct route.

Iran’s efforts in Syria, however, are still advancing with regard to other, arguably more important, long-term endeavors: retaining its supply line to Hezbollah and preparing the ground for a permanent post-civil war military presence. Israeli pushback—Jerusalem has bombed well over a hundred IRGC and joint Syrian-Iranian bases since 2012 and has responded especially vigorously to direct Iranian attacks earlier this year—has so far impeded Iran from effectively using the Syrian Golan as a base from which to strike Israel and has disrupted some of its military activities elsewhere in Syria. Tehran, however, has not abandoned its long-term goal of retaining a strong presence in Syria to assure its authority in the “Shia crescent” stretching from Tehran to Beirut and to threaten Israel in the guise of a neighboring “front-line state.”

Moreover, Tehran is blurring the distinction between domestic Syrian and Iranian-backed military forces. Units are emerging that, while mostly manned by Syrians, are commanded, organized, supplied and trained by a mix of IRGC, foreign Shia and Syrian officers. These Local and National Defense Forces allow Iran to seamlessly infiltrate Assad’s security forces, ensuring that in the long run Assad pays attention to Tehran’s anti-Israel goals, and not just to self-preservation.

  • Tehran is creating the infrastructure for a long-term presence in Syria. This includes IRGC air and sea bases and facilities for storing and producing arms that, while ostensibly controlled by Damascus, are better described as joint Syrian-Iranian ventures.

Moscow Weighs In

The Kremlin is walking a very fine line in Syria: It does not want to facilitate Tehran’s jihad against the Jewish state, but at the same time needs the support of Iranian military muscle to ensure that Assad reasserts his authority over all of Syria and fully pacifies recently reconquered regions.

  • The Kremlin has acquiesced in Israeli strikes on weapons shipments to Hezbollah and sundry IRGC/Syrian facilities throughout Syria—as long as no Russian targets are hit. Russia also ignored major Israeli actions including “Operation House of Cards” in May, which targeted almost 50 Iranian/Syrian facilities throughout Syria. Moscow’s proposal of the 85-kilometer-wide (or 52 miles) Iran-free buffer zone from the Israeli Golan is designed to alleviate Israel’s most immediate fear: that Iranian and Iranian-backed troops will entrench themselves on Israel’s doorstep.

  • Russia, however, has stated publicly that it will not pressure Damascus to completely eject—as Jerusalem desires—Iranian forces from Syria. Moscow lacks the leverage to force Damascus to break with Tehran completely. In addition, the Kremlin probably calculates that unsettled domestic political and military conditions in Syria—more than 100,000 armed rebels remain in Idlib province alone—make it too risky to withdraw Iranian-backed forces for now, since their absence might jeopardize Assad’s reconquest of the rest of Syria and could even reignite the civil war in some areas.

Hard Decisions for Israel

Jerusalem’s publicly stated “red lines” in Syria remain intact: no passage of “game changing” advanced weapons to Hezbollah; no creation of an Iranian “second northern front” on the Syrian Golan (in addition to Hezbollah’s existing front in southern Lebanon); and no permanent Iranian military presence in post-war Syria. Israel’s overriding challenge is to enforce these red lines against Iran without harming Moscow’s equities in Syria.

  • So far, Israeli intelligence on Syria has been highly accurate and military deconfliction procedures between the Israeli military and Russian forces have worked well. As a result, Israeli attacks on Iranian/Syrian installations have not caused collateral damage to Russian facilities and personnel. Likewise, Jerusalem is striving to reduce Syria’s reliance on Iranian, Hezbollah and foreign Shia forces by monitoring to ensure that only regular Syrian Arab Army forces and Russian police enter the recently reconquered territory adjacent to Israel on the Golan.

  • Both Israel and Russia support a strict return to the 1974 Disengagement Agreement between Jerusalem and Damascus, which inserted a U.N. peacekeeping force (UNDOF) and a neutral zone between the two countries and regulated the kinds of armaments and number of forces that both sides could deploy on the Golan Heights. Reestablishing this regimen will at a minimum require the Iranian and Iranian-backed troops who fought in Dar’a and Quneitra provinces last month to quickly evacuate to the north and the east. Jerusalem is currently evaluating just how far such forces must be from its border, but has made clear that it will not hesitate to strike any units or facilities in southwestern Syria that it considers threatening.

Jerusalem will also need to determine how, when, and at what pace to degrade Iranian infrastructure and forces throughout Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has clearly stated that “an Iranian departure from southern Syria alone will not suffice,” and that Israel will not sit idly by as Iranian forces blend into Syrian ones or shelter in ostensibly “Syrian” bases and facilities. Achieving this goal may require a long-term war of attrition between Israel and Iran in Syria in which Israeli forces repeatedly attack an Iranian military presence that seeks to camouflage itself among Syrian forces and military installations. Iran—reluctant to lose its huge investment in Syria—will probably respond by intensifying its efforts to fortify and conceal its presence there. In addition, Tehran could again try to directly attack Israel from southwest Syria; nothing indicates that Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Qods Force, has abandoned this goal, despite his failure to seriously damage Israel so far.

Implications for U.S. Policy

Jerusalem has successfully navigated more than seven years of civil war in neighboring Syria by staying out of internal Syrian affairs and limiting its military activities to thwarting direct threats to Israel, the vast majority of which stem from Iran and Hezbollah. The modus vivendi that Prime Minister Netanyahu has worked out with President Putin has facilitated this strategy, but it has not forced Iran to leave Syria. Achieving and monitoring that goal will only get more difficult in coming months, especially now that the dividing line between Syrian government and Iranian-backed forces on the ground in Syria is blurring. Washington can help by:

  • Clearly supporting Israel’s right to unilaterally enforce its “red lines” in Syria. If Iran becomes a “front-line state” in Syria, it will threaten not only Israel but also American, European and moderate Arab interests throughout the region.

  • Maintaining for now the U.S. special operations presence in eastern Syria, which is blocking Iran’s “land bridge” to the Mediterranean and sending a clear message to Tehran that America will not give Iran carte blanche in Syria.

Ensuring that Israel has the U.S.-manufactured Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) it needs to strike Iranian/Syrian military targets without collateral damage to other parties. Washington should quickly implement the provision in the recently passed defense authorization bill that calls for a joint U.S.-Israeli assessment of Jerusalem’s PGM requirements and how the United States can help meet our ally’s needs.

Type: Near-East-Report Near East Report