For Israel, Syrian battles hit too close to home

Israel is facing a complicated situation on its Syrian border as Iran keeps reinforcing its presence in the country, the Syrian army gets closer to Israel and refugees continue to flee the combat zones.

al-monitor Israeli soldiers walk past tanks near the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, May 11, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.
Ben Caspit

Ben Caspit


Topics covered

hezbollah in syria, us-israel relations, iranian-israeli conflict, syrian refugees, israel-syria relations, syrian conflict, syrian civil war

Jul 2, 2018

Three major developments involving Israel and Syria took place June 29 and 30. The Israel Defense Forces significantly beefed up its presence in the Golan Heights, including the armored and artillery corps, in light of the advance of President Bashar al-Assad’s army in southern Syria. Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot landed in Washington for a series of urgent meetings regarding developments on the northern front and the campaign being waged by Israel and the United States vis-a-vis Iran. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) also conducted a secret night operation to transfer large quantities of humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees, including foodstuffs, medications, tents and clothing to the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who have dug in opposite the Israeli border.

Israel is determined not to allow the refugees to enter its territory and is going out of its way to help them where they are. On July 1, Israel announced that it would not allow Assad’s army to enter the demilitarized territory on the border between the two states. The 1974 cease-fire agreement between them refers to a wide demilitarized strip of land that separates Israel and Syria and is now populated by refugees who are massing on Israel’s borders as the Syrian army rapidly advances on the territories held by the rebels in the country’s south. Israel finds itself torn between helping the rebels, with whom Israel has developed a relationship of sorts, and reluctantly reconciling itself to Assad’s return to the border. So far, Israel has decided not to decide and limits itself to humanitarian aid.

But the real drama is taking place in Washington, in the course of the meetings between Eizenkot and his American counterparts, headed by Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. No one in Israel knew that Eizenkot had brought with him Gen. Nitzan Alon, who recently left his position as head of the army’s operations branch and was secretly appointed to head the Iranian project. The officer, viewed as an especially creative and brilliant military man, received the entire Israeli-Iranian portfolio. Alon was also given responsibility to manage the intensive contacts between Israel and the United States on this subject. A July 1 phone call between Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu and intensive contacts between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his people with higher-ups in the American administration also came together in preparation for a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump expected to be held July 16 in Helsinki.

The United States and Israel are extremely well coordinated with regard to the Iranian threat. Eizenkot presented a large quantity of intelligence to Dunford and his people, including overviews of what is taking place in Iran and the tremendous impact of the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement and its imposition of additional sanctions. According to a high-level military source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, Israel was recently taken by surprise by the extent of Iranian determination and grit, especially that of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

In spite of a very long series of painful blows — inflicted by Israel on the Iranians, on the militias that obey them and on Hezbollah — Soleimani continues his energetic efforts to establish a foothold in Syrian territory. Israel, however, has no intention of letting up its pressure. Together with the American administration, Israel is trying to deepen the gap between the moderate and conservative sectors in Iran that is already quickly widening, expressed by violent demonstrations that are growing and spreading over the entire country in protest of the economic situation and in distress over the severe drought.

Israel wants Trump to be as informed and updated as possible for his summit with Putin, in order to fully present Israel’s interests to the Russian president. According to Israel, Iran and its proxies are in deep trouble on the ground, harried by air force activities attributed to Israel. The damage inflicted on Iran’s attempts to establish a presence in Syria is causing the Iranians and Hezbollah, according to a senior Israeli security source who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, to “distort reality by reporting imaginary losses on the Israeli side while blurring their own losses. All this is connected to the ‘struggle of the Titans’ on the highest Iranian levels in which the pressures on Soleimani are growing, to slow his pace and halt the hemorrhage of human life and resources in the Syrian swamp.”

Israel is very encouraged by these developments in Iran, and emphasizes that the IDF will continue its activities full speed ahead. The country remains determined not to allow Iran any kind of foothold in Syrian territory. Israelis are focusing not only on events in southern Syria and on Israeli territory adjacent to the border in the Golan Heights, but also on the effects of Iran's participation in the group stage of the World Cup soccer competition. “The World Cup is accelerating the protest [movement] in Iran,” an Israeli military source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “Everyone can see the lovely Iranian women in the crowds, with their hair loose and wearing lipstick and Western dress. When you take a close look at the pictures hung around their necks — the passport photos produced by the authorities for all the fans who went to Russia — you see another face entirely: in a black chador, no makeup. … People in Iran also see the thousands who went to the World Cup competition and were able to circulate around Moscow like free people, even if for only a few days. Everyone sees the contrast between the gloomy visages on the official documents hanging on the Iranian women’s necks and their modern appearance. A culture war is taking place in Iran now, and it is a very dramatic one.”

Eizenkot spoke to his counterparts in Washington on tactical and strategic levels. On the tactical side, Eizenkot tried to explain the Israeli dilemma with regard to southern Syria. The US-Russian-Jordanian cooperation that was supposed to remove the Americans from al-Tanf on the Syria-Jordan border to force the Iranians and Shiite militias out of southern Syria has not proved itself on the ground and is a source of great worry on the part of the Israelis.

Under the directives of the political echelons, the IDF made the decision to clench its teeth and accept the return of Assad to the south with two stipulations: that the Syrian army not enter the demilitarized region between the two countries, and that southern Syria remain free of Shiite militias, Iranians and Hezbollah's people, in any kind of uniform. There are numerous aspects to this southern arena, facets that are complex and contradictory, as explained to Al-Monitor by a senior Israeli officer on condition of anonymity: “The Russians want the Americans to leave Tanf; the Americans predicate their departure from Tanf on the departure of all non-Syrian elements from the southern Syrian region. As of now, this is not happening. Jordan and Israel are not willing to receive refugees on their land, Assad wants to return himself to power in southern Syria and Israel won’t accept any non-Syrian presence in the region. Accomplishing all this is trying to square the circle — and that is what Eizenkot spoke about in Washington.”

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