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Leak reveals how Russia-Iran alignment could shift Israel’s support for Ukraine

A top-secret US intelligence document confirms Al-Monitor's prior reporting and suggests Israeli officials have been pressing the Biden administration for more support for operations against Iran.
Pentagon leak

A highly classified Pentagon intelligence document reviewed by Al-Monitor suggests the Biden administration can leverage its support for Israel's clandestine operations against Iran in order to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to provide arms to Ukraine.

The assessment, labelled "top-secret," lays out scenarios through which emerging military cooperation between Russia and Iran could lead to escalation in Syria and may convince Israeli leaders to support Kyiv in its fight against Russia's invasion.

The report, labeled “Pathways to Providing Lethal Aid to Ukraine,” was among hundreds of classified documents published online in recent months in the most significant public breach of US intelligence since Edward Snowden’s leak in 2013. It was obtained by Al-Monitor early this week and first reported by the New York Times.

The intel document is labelled "exploratory analysis" and bears the emblem of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. It includes markings that signify at least some of the information was obtained through "signals intelligence," or communications intercepts, and is dated Feb. 28.

Not all of the document's contents have been independently verified, but much of it corroborates prior reporting by Al-Monitor, including about concerns among senior US military officials that Iran's support for Russia's war in Ukraine could lead Moscow to be more permissive toward IRGC activities in Syria, thus leading to escalation with Israel, with US troops potentially caught in the middle.

Though it makes no mention of risks to US troops, the intel assessment underscores the fragility of the balance between foreign powers in Syria and the conflict's potential to impact the war in Ukraine, and vice versa.

The document also claims Israeli officials have been pressing the Biden administration for more support for their operations against Iran and its proxies, even as the White House authorized Israel’s inclusion in war games designed to simulate long-range strikes against Iran earlier this year.

Supporting Ukraine

The classified report lays out four scenarios arranged from “most plausible” to “least plausible” that could convince Israeli leaders to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine.

Netanyahu’s government has so far resisted pressure from the Biden administration to provide arms to Kyiv, opting to send medical and other non-lethal aid out of deference to Russia’s permissive hand in Syria, where Israeli warplanes regularly strike targets linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

However, the document notes Israel has already been providing intelligence to Ukraine and “will likely consider providing lethal aid under increased US pressure" if Moscow fails to keep Iran and its proxies at bay.

Though Russia and Iran both support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, closer cooperation between the two has been limited by competing interests in Syria and in other regions. But US officials have said Syria's delicate power balance could be ripe for a shift as the Kremlin seeks to reward Iran for its support in Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine.

US and Israeli officials have accused the IRGC of sending weapons and fighters into Syria — including radar components and precision-guided missile systems which analysts say are likely directed at Israel — and have urged Russian counterparts in past years to push back on the IRGC’s footprint, with limited success.

Russia-Iran axis

Israel's quiet campaign of airstrikes targeting IRGC activities in Syria has long enjoyed tacit Russian permission.

But the leaked intelligence report suggests Israel might decide to send lethal aid to Ukraine if Russia or Iran cross certain red lines — such as if Iran were to bring advanced surface-to-air missile systems into Syria, like the SA-2 or SA-3, or if Russia provides Tehran with Su-35 or SA-21 warplanes or more assistance "to Iran’s missile, nuclear, or space program.”

“The IDF is concerned Russia will provide advanced systems or technology, such as steel alloys or other materials used in both missile and space programs, in exchange for Iranian weapons,” the document reads.

Iran's provision of hundreds of one-way attack drones to Russia for use in Ukraine has led to unprecedented defense cooperation between the two sides, including possible transfers of Russian fighter aircraft and air defense systems to Tehran, White House and Pentagon officials have said. 

The leaked intel further speculates that intensified Israeli strikes against an expanded Iranian footprint in Syria could lead to Russian casualties and thus retaliation against Israeli aircraft, which would likely change Israel’s calculus regarding Ukraine. That scenario is labeled “least plausible.”

In another scenario, the report raises the prospect of US leverage in its effort to convince Netanyahu’s government to arm Ukraine, noting that Israeli defense officials have been asking Washington “for increased risk-taking to counter Iran, including proposing bilateral Israeli-US operations.”

Earlier this year, the US and Israel kicked off what Biden administration officials described as the largest and most significant military exercise ever held between the two countries.

The war games, dubbed Juniper Oak, included combined fighter escorts, mid-air refueling and long-range heavy airstrikes, resembling a campaign to knock out Iran’s nuclear sites. Israeli officials have long sought a demonstration of Washington’s support for just such an operation to no avail, until recently.

Pentagon officials under the Trump administration developed Juniper Oak in line with operational plans to disrupt Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon, Al-Monitor has learned. A similar concept plan was first reported by the Intercept.

Iran has continued to enrich uranium after Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran in 2018, though CIA director Bill Burns said recently the US does not believe Iran’s leaders have chosen to pursue a nuclear weapon.

Two former US officials familiar with the planning said such an operation would likely result in significant Iranian military casualties and could result in the downing of US and Israeli aircraft in the effort to disable Iran’s extensive western air defenses.

Ultimately, the sources said the attack aircraft would successfully reach their targets, but how much of a setback the strikes would impose on Iran’s nuclear capabilities remains less certain. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss classified military assessments.

Syria’s precarious balance

The leaked intel report makes no mention of the Pentagon’s contingency plans regarding Iran, but does suggest Israeli officials have been pressing their American counterparts for additional support amid more limited strikes in Syria.

“Israel has regularly requested ATG [Al-Tanf Garrison] overflights to support strikes in Syria,” the document reads, in reference to a remote US military outpost in south-central Syria.

Al-Monitor previously reported in 2020 that the Pentagon had been green-lighting Israeli F-35 flights along the Jordanian border and over Al-Tanf as a waypoint on their route to bomb targets in Syria.

“They like to use our air corridors because [Syria’s] air defenses can’t tell the difference until it’s too late,” a former US official told Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity at the time.

The leaked report seems to suggest the Biden administration may be withholding certain forms of requested support for Israel’s counter-Iran activities, suggesting the US can dial up or down such cooperation as leverage with the Israeli government.

Israeli strikes in Syria have led to retaliation by Iran-backed militias against US troops in the country in the past, most recently in a lethal exchange last month that left one American dead and 25 others injured — among them 23 with traumatic brain injuries, US CENTCOM spokesperson Col. Joe Buccino told Al-Monitor via email on Friday.

Military officials assessed at least 8 militia members were killed by retaliatory US airstrikes on March 23.

The intelligence report underscores the oft-overlooked impact of Russia’s war against Ukraine upon the fragile status quo in the Middle East, and its framing appears to suggest US policymakers see Israel's support for Ukraine as a higher priority than maintaining the calm between the various sides in Syria.

The document goes on to list Israeli weapons that could be provided to Ukraine: Spike anti-tank guided missiles as well as Spyder and Barak-8/MX surface-to-air missiles.

The “most plausible” scenario laid out in the assessment is that “Israel adopts Turkey’s model” of selling Ukraine lethal military aid or providing it through third parties while “openly advocat[ing] for a peaceful end to the conflict and offer[ing] to host mediation efforts.”

“Ankara has successfully maintained cordial relations while facilitating arms transfers to Kyiv; Jerusalem may believe it can similarly balance its ties,” the report concludes.

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