Israel-Iran Shadow War in Syria intensifies Amid International Developments

The ongoing military conflict between Israel and Iran (along with Iran-backed Shia forces like Hezbollah) in Syria show no signs of easing despite the Russia-Ukraine crisis and a possible return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, these major international developments may have provided both Israel and Iran with some opportunities to step up their attacks in recent weeks.

Both Israel and Iran believe they have major interests in Syria that they are keen to pursue. For Israel, this involves weakening Iran and Hezbollah’s role in Syria, and by extension, in Lebanon, particularly concerning the movement of arms between countries and the building of Iranian factories in Syria producing missiles, while Iran wants the opposite, as its entrenched position in Syria—made stronger by its involvement in that country’s civil war—gives it important influence and leverage in the Levant.

Evolution of Israeli Strikes in Syria

Israel has conducted hundreds, if not thousands, of air strikes in Syria since 2013 after Iran and Hezbollah came to the full aid of the Syrian regime in the early years of the civil war. These Israeli raids chiefly targeted Hezbollah’s arms depots as well as the movement of weapons from Iran through Syria to Lebanon. There have also been clashes between Israeli and Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In more recent years, however, the Israeli targets have included Iranian arms and missile factories, usually built in underground sites in Syria, that the Israelis believe are producing precision-guided missiles that could hit their population centers. Building these missiles in Syria is considered by some analysts as less risky than transporting them overland or by air from Iran to Syria.

The Israeli targets in Syria have included Iranian arms and missile factories, usually built in underground sites, that the Israelis believe are producing precision-guided missiles.

One prominent former Israeli defense official has stated: “I don’t think Israel is interested in hitting each and every target belonging to Iranian-led forces…We are trying to hit targets with a strategic impact…We want to prevent Iran turning Syria into an Iranian base close to Israel that may bring a drastic strategic change in the situation.” Nonetheless, over a three-year period, according to the respected Jane’s Defense News, Israel reportedly struck 955 targets all over Syria that have included Iran-backed militia forces in addition to “strategic” targets.

Although Israel has used so-called “bunker buster” bombs to penetrate underground facilities, some of the weapons warehouses and factories have been dug deep into mountains and are reportedly resistant to Israeli raids, though repeated strikes have disrupted tunnels that have led to these underground facilities. It is also important to note that “dozens of Iranian scientists and engineers” have reportedly been sent to Syria to work in these arms industries which not only involve missile development but suspected chemical weapons as well.

Iran and Hezbollah’s Response

Since 2006, the last time Israel and Hezbollah were engaged in a direct military conflict across the Israeli-Lebanese border, both sides have tried to avoid a full-scale confrontation. This situation has sometimes been referred to by analysts as strategic deterrence. For the most part, Iran and Hezbollah have responded only with occasional counter-strikes and refrained from major retaliation. For example, in May 2018, Israel claimed that the Iranian Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched 20 rockets from Syrian territory targeting Israeli forces in the Golan Heights. This attack was likely a response to an Israeli strike a month earlier near the Syrian city of Homs that killed seven Iranians. In early September 2019, Hezbollah launched a missile strike into Israel that narrowly missed an Israeli military vehicle. The strike was believed to have been in retaliation for the killing of two Hezbollah members in Syria plus an Israeli strike in the southern suburbs of Beirut that targeted a Hezbollah missile facility. Israel probably did not respond to the Hezbollah counter-strike in this instance because no Israelis were killed and, knowing that Hezbollah has substantial numbers of rockets in its arsenal, did not want to precipitate a larger conflict that could lead to a repeat of 2006.

For Iran, a red line seems to be the killing of IRGC personnel in Syria. On March 7, Israel launched a strike near the Damascus airport in which two IRGC colonels were killed and six pro-Iranian militiamen were injured. Iran vowed revenge. The purported response came on March 13, not in Syria, but in Iraq when Iran launched about a dozen rockets from Iranian territory into the city of Irbil, capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, claiming it was targeting two advanced Mossad training centers. Although the KRG denied it was hosting an Israeli intelligence cell, and the US consulate was not struck, Iran tried to convey the message that it will not take the killings of its military personnel lying down. This was also a way for Iran to avoid a direct attack on Israel itself which would likely invite a strong Israeli response.

Although the KRG denied it was hosting an Israeli intelligence cell, and the US consulate was not struck, Iran tried to convey the message that it will not take the killings of its military personnel lying down.

There have been other interpretations of the Iranian attack on Irbil, one of which was retaliation for Israeli airstrikes on hundreds of Iranian drones at a base in western Iran near the city of Kermanshah that occurred in mid-February. Although this strike was kept quiet by both Iran and Israel for a time, it became public knowledge a month later, though neither country has officially commented on it. For Iran, the destruction of these drones by its nemesis was clearly an embarrassment, while for the Israelis it was a message to the Islamic Republic not to deploy such drones to Syria but without incurring international wrath by publicizing it.

Yet another explanation for the Iranian missile strike on Irbil involves Iraqi domestic politics. The attack may have been in response to a growing Iraqi political coalition of Moqtada al-Sadr’s political party (called the Sairoon Alliance, which won the largest plurality of seats in Iraq’s parliamentary election last autumn), the Kurdish Democratic Party, and other factions which aims to exclude pro-Iranian elements from being part of a new national government. Regardless, the attack still had the effect of bolstering Iran’s anti-Israeli credentials and underscoring that any attack against IRGC personnel comes with a price, even though no Israelis were actually harmed.

That Iran plans to stay in Syria for the long haul has been evidenced by its recent activities in eastern Syria. In the Deir ez-Zor region, it has been recruiting local Syrians to join its allied militias with higher pay and benefits than what the Syrian army is able to provide, even though most of these recent recruits are Sunni Muslims. For example, the militia identity card these recruits are given enables them to obtain a monthly food basket as well as free flights to Damascus on Iranian aircraft. In the border town of al-Boukamal along the Euphrates River opposite Iraq, which is seen as an important corridor for the shipment of Iranian arms into Syria and then on to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran is reportedly engaged in efforts to try to win over the local populace.

The Dual and Cynical Role of Russia

Despite the fact that Russia came to the military aid of the Syrian regime in 2015—which helped to turn the civil war in Assad’s favor—and maintains an important military and political presence in the country, it has collaborated with Israel in the Syrian skies. The government of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a de-confliction process with Russia to make sure that Israeli and Russian war planes did not inadvertently strike each other as they were carrying out their own missions. Russian President Vladimir Putin probably agreed to this process to cultivate better relations with Israel in order to be a major player in the Arab-Israeli situation once again and to keep Russian aircraft out of harm’s way. To be sure, the Syrian and Iranian governments, plus Hezbollah, have not been pleased with this arrangement, to say the least, but they are not in a position to challenge Russia’s position in Syria.

The Syrian and Iranian governments, plus Hezbollah, have not been pleased with this arrangement, to say the least, but they are not in a position to challenge Russia’s position in Syria.

Netanyahu’s successor, Naftali Bennett, has been eager to continue this de-confliction process. In October 2021, he traveled to Sochi, Russia to meet with Putin for this very purpose. According to Israel’s Housing Minister, Ze’ev Elkin, who acted as Bennett’s translator, the talks were aimed at “safeguarding the coordination mechanism.” Although Bennett also presented his view to Putin about what he sees as Iran’s nuclear ambitions and entrenchment in Syria which was nothing new to the Russian leader and for which Bennett probably did not make much headway, “it was decided to keep policies vis-a-vis Russia in place (regarding airstrikes in Syrian territory),” according to an Israeli government statement issued after the talks.

It is likely that Bennett’s desire to keep in Putin’s good graces led him to take an equivocal stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although Israel voted with the majority of the UN member states in condemning the invasion, Bennett has tried to play a mediatory role in the conflict. His trip to Moscow on March 5 to meet with Putin was undoubtedly intended in part to keep the de-confliction process going despite the Russia-Ukraine war. To be sure, the Israelis were relieved to hear the Russian ambassador to Israel say in early March that the status quo in Syria would continue because it “helps ensure the safety and security of our army.” Nonetheless, Israel clearly wants to safeguard its freedom of movement in the skies over Syria and will do all it can to protect it.

Although Russia has supplied the Syrian military with some older surface-to-air batteries to defend its territory from Israeli strikes, the fact that Putin has tacitly cooperated with the Israelis in these strikes by not opposing them makes Moscow a truly cynical player. In other words, Russia is able to maintain its position in the Syrian conflict in part because the various players are either dependent on it or are not strong enough to oppose it.

The Impact of the Iran Nuclear Deal

Should Washington and Tehran iron out their remaining differences over the JCPOA and reach an agreement, the conflict in Syria between Israel and Iran (and by extension, Hezbollah) is unlikely to diminish. If anything, the violence might even increase. The removal of most sanctions that will come with this deal will allow Iran to generate more revenue, particularly from revitalized oil sales. While some parts of the Iranian government will want to use this money to shore up its hard-pressed domestic economy, more hardline elements tied to the IRGC will want to use at least some of this revenue to ramp up their activities in the Arab world, especially in Syria and Lebanon, that will surely please their allies. Hoping for some windfall from the original 2015 nuclear deal, for example, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed then that “if Iran gets back this money” it will “be able to stand by its allies and friends…more than any time in the past.”

Even if substantially more Iranian revenue does not materialize in Syria, the Israelis might convince themselves that they cannot live with the potential of even more Iranian activity in the country.

Even if substantially more Iranian revenue does not materialize in Syria, the Israelis might convince themselves that they cannot live with the potential of even more Iranian activity in the country. Never in favor of the Iran nuclear deal, Israel might then believe that striking even more Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in Syria would be more palatable to the United States than striking Iran itself, as the latter would anger the Biden Administration that would believe Iran would then scuttle a new JCPOA and cause a wider war.

Recommendations for US Policy

Although the United States does not have any influence with Russia at this point given its strong opposition to Putin’s war against Ukraine, it does have influence with Israel and potentially with Iran if the nuclear deal is revitalized. The Biden team needs to convince the Israelis not to use the impending Iran nuclear deal as an excuse to up the ante in Syria against Iranian and pro-Iranian targets which will likely cause even more violence in the country and could potentially lead to another Hezbollah-Israeli war next door. Such a war would cause even more hardship in Lebanon than what the Lebanese people are experiencing now with their collapsing economy. The $1 billion additional funding that Congress recently passed for Israel’s Iron Dome project, with support from the Biden Administration, should be among the talking points US officials use with their Israeli counterparts to say that Israel’s strategic posture in the region will not be jeopardized by the return to the Iran nuclear deal.

At the same time, American officials should underscore to the Iranians, if the nuclear deal resumes, that they will be watching how these new revenues will be spent. If Iran truly wants to remove itself from international isolation, it should use these revenues at home to help its hard-pressed people. Further Iranian entrenchment in Syria and any increased military support for Hezbollah will be opposed by the international community. Given the recent unity in Europe that has come about over the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a policy that was strongly supported by Washington, the Biden team should also ask its European partners to send a unified message to Iran that they too will be closely watching how new Iranian revenues will be spent.