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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

Iran’s Military Proxies Approach the Israeli-Syrian Border

The Syrian area of Quneitra is seen in the background as an out-of-commission Israeli tank parks on a hill, near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, in the Golan Heights. (Photo: Baz Ratner/Reuters)

On Nov. 8, the United States, Russia and Jordan reached a limited ceasefire agreement over southern Syria, resulting in a Memorandum of Principles (MOP) which optimistically calls for all foreign forces to eventually quit Syria. It also updated the limited ceasefire in the southwest, one of three Syrian “de-escalation zones” that the three powers adopted in July. However, in the near term, the agreement dangerously does not prohibit military forces controlled by Iran, to include its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah, to deploy near Israel’s border with Syria in the Golan Heights. As Iran capitalizes on this latest cease-fire to firmly entrench its proxies in Syria, Israel may be forced to take action to defend against this growing threat.

Jerusalem and Amman are worried about Iranian encroachment.

Israeli security officials immediately objected to the November MOP, which they aver would allow Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Shia militias and Hezbollah to entrench themselves near the Golan Heights for the foreseeable future. According to a U.S. State Department official, Washington and Moscow agreed to “work with the Syrian regime to remove the Iranian-backed forces a defined distance from the Golan Heights.” While the public memorandum contained few details, Israel has declared—and neither Washington nor Moscow has denied—that the “defined distance from the Golan Heights” could put Iranian-backed forces as close as five kilometers from the Israeli border in some areas.

Jerusalem rejects the prospect of Iran becoming, in effect, a “front-line state” that, via its domination of Syria, possesses a land border with Israel. The Jewish state is particularly concerned that Iran’s and Hezbollah’s growing presence in the Syrian Golan Heights, combined with permanent Iranian military bases in Syria and an emerging “land bridge” linking Tehran with Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea, could allow the IRGC to coordinate attacks on Israeli population centers. This new front would exacerbate the existing danger already posed by Hezbollah from Lebanon.

Jordan—despite the shared assurances contained in the November agreement—is also concerned about a permanent Iranian presence in southern Syria. In September, Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein said “defending our northern border against the terror organizations and foreign militias is a top priority for us.” And in response to the MOP, former Jordanian Minister Samih al-Ma’aita described Iran as a direct threat to Jordan’s freedom, saying that "Jordan understands Iran's moves and mentality very well, and [realizes] that Iran yearns to repeat what it has [already] done in Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq.”

Iran is laying the foundation for a long-term presence in Syria.

Since its founding in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought to export its revolutionary presence throughout the Middle East in a bid to propagate radical Shia Islamism, restore ancient Persia’s historical domination of the region, and supplant American influence in the Middle East. Damascus soon became Tehran’s principal and most loyal Arab ally. The two nations initially forged an alliance to confront their shared adversaries: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Israel.

Tehran and Damascus also created and nurtured the Shia terrorist movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, initially under the guise of fighting Israel’s military presence in southern Lebanon (which ended in 2000, with no diminution of hostility from Hezbollah). This cooperation made Syria and Iran, along with Hezbollah and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, key players in a “resistance axis” against Israel, which enabled Damascus to acquire a regional role disproportionate to its actual size and resources.

Both the nature of Syria’s position in this alliance and the threat it posed to Israel changed dramatically following the outbreak of civil war in 2011. Before the conflict, Syria and Iran cooperated as allies, with Damascus controlling its own sovereign territory. The Assads—both Hafez and his son and current ruler, Bashar—were content letting Hezbollah and Iran take the lead in confronting Israel, while maintaining quiet on the Israel-Syria border from 1974 to 2011.

During the past five years, however, Syria’s strength vis-à-vis Iran has diminished with Iranian-led Shia fighters now shouldering most of the burden in the fight against ISIS and other anti-Assad opposition groups. White House National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has stated that only 20 percent of the fighters under Damascus’s titular command are actually Syrian—the remaining 80 percent being Iranian/Shia. Damascus has, in effect, lost control of most of Syria to Tehran, which is anxious to use Syrian territory as a base from which to directly attack the Jewish state.

Iran appears confident that its military presence in Syria will endure long after the civil war there ends. According to Israeli military sources, Tehran is building underground missile factories in Syria and in neighboring Lebanon to facilitate support to Hezbollah. Iran currently operates 13 military bases in Syria, which comprise a strong command-and-control network covering the entire country, save for a few rebel strongholds. According to the BBC, a Western intelligence agency has identified a “permanent” military base Iran is building south of Damascus—a development that blatantly contradicts the MOP’s stated goal of removing all foreign forces from Syria.

Israel will have no choice but to enforce its red lines.

In November, Israeli jets reportedly struck the would-be permanent Iranian military base and destroyed a research facility that was developing missiles and other advanced weapons for Hezbollah. And on Dec. 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left no room for doubt when he stated that Israel “will not allow a regime hell-bent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to…entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”

Israel has indicated its intention to enforce its three “red lines” in Syria. Specifically, Israel opposes:

  • The presence of Iranian and Hezbollah-led Shia militias near Israel’s northern border.

  • A permanent Iranian military presence anywhere in Syria.

  • Hezbollah’s acquisition of advanced weapons.

Looking ahead.

In September, National Security Advisor McMaster stated that the current U.S. strategy in the Middle East is to “weaken Iranian influence in the region.” Preventing Iran from establishing a permanent foothold in Syria is crucial to this objective. Washington has taken an important step by announcing that U.S. troops will not abandon eastern Syria. In that arena, the United States has already helped Syria’s Kurdish minority defeat ISIS by creating a military—the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF has the potential to counterbalance Iran in eastern Syria in the future.

As the Syrian civil war winds down, Washington must establish a clear, comprehensive approach to oppose Iran’s regional aggression. To this end, the Trump administration will have to coordinate ever more closely with our allies in the Levant and throughout the Middle East, all of which are threatened by Iran’s and its proxies’ subversive and destabilizing activities.

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