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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Can Iran and Its Proxies Be Restrained in Syria?

Filed under: Hizbullah, Iran, Israel, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Russia, Syria, The Middle East

Can Iran and Its Proxies Be Restrained in Syria?

According to Lebanese and Syrian sources, Israeli attacks on military facilities in Syria intensified in early December.1 The targeted facilities are apparently used by Iran – one of them is a weapons production compound and the other a military base.

Iranian Base in Syria before
Credit: ImageSat International (ISI)
Iranian Base in Syria after
Credit: ImageSat International (ISI)

Israel’s attacks against Iranian targets in Syria are part of an intensifying battle over the future rules of the game in Syria, as the civil war subsides with a relative success of the pro-Assad forces (Assad, Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah). Israel has three red lines regarding the new reality on the ground, and all of them concern Iran’s aspirations to turn Syria into an Iranian proxy controlled from Tehran.  Control of Syria serves Iranian interests of gaining hegemony in the region and strengthening its offensive capability against Israel.

Iran has managed to make considerable progress towards this goal: It took advantage of its willingness to use brute force and to make the necessary sacrifices by its own Revolutionary Guard Quds force, by military and probably military industry experts, and by Hizbullah and Shiite proxies from various Asian countries. It also exploited the American decision to confine the U.S. intervention in Syria to the fight and defeat of ISIS, abandon the pragmatic elements of the anti-Assad Sunni opposition and refrain from taking any risk on their behalf. The weakness of the pragmatic Sunni camp in Syria and the Russian support for Assad contributed significantly to the Iranian success, too.

Faced with this reality, Israel understands what has to be done – by itself – to protect its interests:

  1. Deny the Iranians and their Hizbullah proxy any permanent presence near the Israeli border in the Golan Heights. Israel fears that such presence can be used for launching terror attacks against Israel by terror groups affiliated with Iran.
  2. Foil the Iranian attempt to supply Hizbullah with advanced weapons produced now in Syria, transferred by air, or via the new ground corridor Iran is establishing through Iraq and Syria. Weapons may also be transferred by sea to Syrian ports. Iran reportedly wants a permanent naval base in Syria, like Russia.
  3. Prevent Iran from building permanent Iranian military and military industrial (including unconventional) presence in Syria.

By “mowing the grass” through repeated attacks, Israel shows that:

  1. Unlike the other pragmatic players, it is ready to put its fingers in the fire to guarantee its role in shaping the future in Syria in a way that fits its security concerns.
  2. It is powerful enough to deter its rivals from retaliating – at least so far.
  3. It maintains an impressive intelligence dominance on the battlefield that enables it to act against targets in a timely and accurate manner.
  4. Even though it acts in accordance with its own interests, it proves to be the most valuable asset of the pragmatic camp in the region in the effort to prevent Iran and other radical elements from spreading their influence in the region.

This last factor illustrates how important the strategic value of Israel is for the West, in general, and for the United States, in particular. This factor also shows Israel’s importance for the pro-Saudi/pragmatic Arab camp , especially in contrast to the Saudi setback in Yemen manifested in the killing of their ally, Ali Abdallah Saleh. This may lead to acceleration of the already diaphanous process of progress in the Saudi-Israeli relations.

The battle over the future of the Iranian role in Syria is far from over, and Iran is not going to give up easily. As long as the Russians do not intervene – and according to Russian President Putin, the Russian presence in Syria will diminish – Iran and Israel will continue to promote their own interests. At this point neither seeks any escalation, but their commitment to their contradicting interests may lead eventually to greater chances of confrontation between them, possibly through attempts to carry out terror attacks by Iranian proxies from Syria.

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1 “Israel Targets Syrian Military base – Syrian State TV,