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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

The Iranian Threat on Israel’s Northern 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)

With the Islamic State (IS) on the brink of defeat and Assad’s reconquest of Syria well underway, Iran is increasingly threatening Israel along its northern border. At the same time, Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah is increasing its anti-Israel rhetoric and further expanding its missile arsenal, which already threatens the entirety of the Jewish state.


Iran has intensified its aggression over the past two months—both against Israel and America. The Iranian drone launched from Syria into Israeli airspace in February constituted an unprecedented hostile infiltration. In eastern Syria, Iranian-backed ground troops are clashing with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). These activities pose a direct threat to Israel and to other U.S. interests.


IRAN IS DANGEROUSLY EXPANDING THE CONFLICT IN SYRIA


Iran is Growing Increasingly Active Near the Golan Heights: Iranian-backed forces are flagrantly violating the terms of the regional “de-escalation zone” in southwest Syria that Tehran, Ankara and Moscow agreed to in 2017. Further, they are ignoring more recent arrangements negotiated with the United States and Jordan. The Iranian drone incursion in February—which Israel countered by targeting Syrian air defenses and other Iranian and Syrian military facilities—was only the most flagrant example of Iran’s increased aggression.


Iranian-backed ground forces in the southwest are now battling moderate rebels, who have been promised protection under the various truces. In December 2017, Iranian and Hezbollah troops jointly conquered a moderate rebel stronghold in Beit Jinn, a mere 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) from the Israel-Syria Golan Heights border. The Russian police detachments, supposedly located in the Syrian Golan to deter such actions, did not intervene.


Iran-U.S. Faceoff in Eastern Syria: Iranian backed troops and those of the U.S.-backed SDF currently face each other across the Euphrates River in eastern Syria. The SDF’s control of the eastern bank has—for now— blocked Tehran from consolidating the most secure and direct land bridge from Iran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. Roughly 2,000 U.S. Special Forces are currently training a 30,000-strong SDF “border guard” force to protect this territory from the threats posed by a resurgent IS and pro-Assad and Turkish forces. These forces have their hands full: In February, Iranian-backed Russian mercenaries assaulted an SDF installation near Deir az Zor (where U.S. military personnel are based), triggering a U.S. air response that killed scores of Russians.


Crushing Isolated Rebel Strongholds: The Syrian government—abetted by Iran and its proxy Hezbollah—is tightening its hold on northern and central Syria. In the north, Syrian troops and Shia militias are preparing to “liberate” Idlib province, which contains the country’s largest concentration of non-SDF anti-Assad fi ghters. Damascus is gradually reducing to rubble Eastern Ghouta—the last major rebel redoubt near the capital—killing thousands of civilians in the process. Once the Damascus-IranMoscow coalition has worn down these rebel strongholds, their forces will be free to target the remaining pockets of non-SDF resistance in southwestern Syria bordering Israel and Jordan. If successful, such a campaign would substantially increase the Iranian, Hezbollah and Shia militia threat to the Jewish state and to other U.S. interests.


HEZBOLLAH IS INCREASINGLY BELLIGERENT


Lebanese Hezbollah is riding high as its primary patron, Iran, seeks to replicate its anti-Israel strategy in Syria. Just as it has done in Lebanon, Iran is working to undercut the central Syrian government’s political authority, seizing control of large swathes of the country (especially areas bordering Israel), and stockpiling thousands of missiles—preferably stationed in or near civilian “human shields”—with which to threaten the Jewish state. Iran is also stepping up its direct assistance to its Lebanese-based terrorist proxy: In a rare disclosure, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced in January that “through the actions and inaction of the Lebanese authorities, Lebanon is turning into one big missile factory while much of the international community looks the other way... Iran and Hezbollah are currently trying to build a precision missile factory [in Lebanon].”


Recently, a string of prominent radical Iranian and Shia political, religious and military leaders have visited southern Lebanon to urge Hezbollah and its supporters to redouble their anti-Israel efforts. These prominent figures included Qais al-Khazali of the radical Iranian-controlled Shia Iraqi militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (also known as the Khazali Network), and Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline Iranian cleric close to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a candidate in last year’s Iranian presidential election. Hezbollah fighters—not the Lebanese army—escorted Raisi on his tour along the Israel-Lebanon border, during which he announced that “the liberation of Al-Quds [Jerusalem] is near.” These aggressive moves come in the runup to Lebanese parliamentary elections scheduled for May, when changes in the electoral law will likely lead to favorable results for Hezbollah and its allies—further increasing the terrorist group’s influence in Beirut.


CLASHING OBJECTIVES


Damascus, Tehran, Moscow and Jerusalem have clear yet diverging objectives for postwar Syria.


Damascus, Tehran and Moscow: Iran and Russia continue to call the shots in Damascus, because Assad’s regime would collapse if Iran and Russia pulled out. Iranian-controlled ground troops account for about 80 percent of Assad’s fi ghting forces, according to U.S. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Russia supplies the bulk of Assad’s airpower. The objectives of the Damascus-TehranMoscow coalition are to keep Assad in power (for now) and to slowly reunify the country (leaving the SDF bastion east of the Euphrates to be dealt with later). In addition, Iran and Russia intend to establish a permanent post-war military presence in Syria, to include air and naval bases for each country, as well as Iranian arms and missile factories built on Syrian and Lebanese soil for use by Hezbollah and Iran. Lastly, Iran is determined to station troops near the Israeli Golan Heights. Simply put, Iran aspires to be a frontline state in any future war against Israel by deploying its well-equipped military assets and proxies on Israel’s border with Syria, from where it can work closely with Hezbollah in Lebanon.


Jerusalem: Israel’s three “red lines” in Syria remain clear: (1) no permanent Iranian military presence; (2) no Iranian or Iranian-affi liated military forces within (ideally) 25 miles (40 kilometers) of the Golan Heights (sometimes referred to as a “buff er zone”); and (3) no transfer or local production of game-changing “strategic” weapons to Hezbollah or Syria. Over the past year, Jerusalem has frequently enforced these red lines by bombing Iranianlinked military facilities and factories in Syria, targeting Iranian and Hezbollah forces near the Golan, and disrupting Iranian arms shipments through Syria to Lebanon.


WHAT ARE U.S. OBJECTIVES?


In a major February address, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined his view of U.S. objectives in Syria. Among the goals he cited were pressuring Assad to step down and blunting Iran’s growing influence.


But achieving these objectives will be challenging. At a minimum, Washington and Jerusalem will need to continue enhancing their cooperation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March visit to Washington provided an opportunity to refine some of the details of the close collaboration that will further the strategic interests of these two staunch allies. Congress will also need to play a critical role, by backing new security assistance legislation and moving forward with new legislation directed at Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, also known as the IRGC.


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