Explosive drones likely launched by Iranian-backed militias last Wednesday night targeted the At-Tanf U.S. airbase in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. The strike appears to be in retaliation for alleged Israeli strikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria, which the Syrian regime said came from the direction of the At-Tanf base.
These events represent an escalation in a much longer struggle.
Since 2013, Israel has been waging a shadow war aimed at preventing Iran from building a war machine in Syria.
Nevertheless, despite considerable success in denting Tehran’s plans for Syria, the Islamic Republic remains committed to entrenching itself in Syria, building a new terror army there, and equipping it with growing firepower capabilities.
Israel’s reported gray zone covert strikes are designed to disrupt Iran’s activities without sparking an all-out regional war. The strikes are fueled by the combination of high quality intelligence on the weapons and movements of the Iranian axis in Syria, and Israel’s precision air power.
This combination has stopped the Islamic Republic from realizing part of its dangerous vision for Syria, but not all of it, and all successes are only temporary.
Between 2013 and 2016, Iran had planned on having its own military forces and bases on Israel’s doorstep in Syria. This dangerous vision included Iranian navy base for its ships on the Syrian coastline, ground bases for its land troops, and air bases for its aircraft in Syria.
By 2016, however, it became clear to Tehran that Israel would not allow this to happen, so Iran changed gears. Under the vision of the late Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Iran sought to create a second Hizballah in Syria, and arm it with tens of thousands of rockets to threaten Israel.
Seeing that Iran adapted its strategy, Israel did too, and began targeting these more covert Iranian entrenchment efforts.
All the while, Israel’s intelligence agencies kept a watchful eye on the transit of advanced Iranian weapons via Syria to Lebanon, with their final intended address being Hizballah’s Lebanese bases, which today houses more than 150,000 projectiles.
Soleimani’s vision for Syria did not turn into reality, but this has not stopped the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei from ordering Soleimani’s successor, Email Qaani, from continuing with the program.
Iran continues to traffic advanced weaponry into Syria, and from there, to Lebanon’s warehouses, through land, air and sea routes. And it continues to try to build a second Hizballah in Syria itself. Iran operates Shi’ite militias in Syria – mainly Pakistani and Afghan divisions – and keeps arming them with weapons that they can turn against Israel. Such divisions have been recruited from among Shi’ite population centers for years, using a mix of sectarian Shi’ite identification and promises of steady pay and Iranian citizenship.
Iran has also been working to build strike capabilities against Israel from Iraq, equipping its Shi’ite militias there with missiles and drones. During Israel’s military conflict with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza in May this year, it was an Iraqi militia that sent an explosive drone to infiltrate Israel’s air space (the drone was shot down by Israel). These same Shi’ite militias in Iraq also pose a direct threat to Saudi Arabia.
Despite Israel’s effective air strikes in Syria, Iran still has the ability to advance Soleimani’s plan.
In order to permanently thwart Iran’s takeover of Syria, one of two scenarios must occur. Iran could decide to cut its losses – Iran’s own estimates show it has invested $30 billion in its Syria project thus far, and suffered an unknown number of casualties.
But with Iran’s hardline elements fully in control of all three centers of power (the executive, judiciary, and the executive), and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps consolidating its political power, an Iranian decision to ditch Syria does not look likely.
An alternative solution would require the United States and Russia to come together around a political decision based on a joint recognition that Iran needs to be rolled out of Syria for good.
Although Russia and Iran are partners in the mission to rescue the Assad regime, and have cooperated militarily for years, tensions also exist in their relationship due to converging interests in post-war Syria.
Russia wishes to stabilize the country and use it a force projection base in the Middle East, while enjoying its naval access to a warm water naval base on the Mediterranean, (enabled by its lease of Tartus for 49 years).
Iran wants to turn Syria into the core zone of its radical Shi’ite axis, and the central bridge between Iran and the Mediterranean. The radical axis currently stretches across Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon in its northern crescent, and Yemen in its southern flank.
Iran’s regional hegemony program, and long-term vision of surrounding with firepower bases, is dependent on its control of Syria. This destabilizing activity is not in line with Russia’s interests.
In the meantime, Israel has managed a sensitive deconfliction mechanism with Russia in the tight air space of Syria and Lebanon, where both the Israeli and Russian air forces operate. When it comes to operating its air force, Jerusalem has made every effort to avoid interfering with Russia’s ability to carry out its air missions while the IAF carries out its own.
An efficient hotline was established to do this. Before it strikes, the IAF factors in the safety of local civilian air traffic, Russian forces, and the civilian Syrian population on the ground, which might be endangered by the highly unprofessional manner in which Assad’s air defense units frequently operate.
The Syrians have for been happy to fire surface-to-air missile systems, such as the Russian-made SA-5, at areas in the sky where they believed an Israeli jet might have been recently, in a haphazard manner.
Russia has never fired its own air defense capabilities at Israel, using them instead to protect its own assets on the ground professionally.
The twin effects of Israel’s shadow war
Israel’s shadow war against Iran in Syria has a double effect. The first is tactical – when the Iranians attempt to move missiles from point A to B, the strikes ensure that the missile physically does not arrive. As a result, Iran has fewer weapons and forces than it wanted to have in Syria.
The second effect is strategic. When Iran changes its approach to entrenchment in Syria due to Israeli pushback, this represents a big picture change. On a regular basis, Iran recalculates its approach in line with developments on the ground, although it has not stopped its efforts at any stage. Rather, Iran merely adapts the ways in which it seeks to take over Syria.
The end result so far is decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the threat from Syria is significantly smaller than it could have been. Israel, observing Iran’s changing efforts, adapts its disruption efforts as well. Iran responds to Israel’s new operations with its own lessons learned, thus the learning competition between Israel and Iran is in full swing.
The fact that Israel directs its firepower on the Iranian axis’s threatening activities more than any other state in the world has also made it an attractive asset to Sunni moderate states, which are also threatened by Iran and its proxies. Israel’s recent entry into the U.S.’s CENTOM Area of Operations gives Israel a new basis for cooperation with Sunni states which are threatened by Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
Still, Syria remains the focal point of the Iranian-Shi’ite axis’s activities. Should Iran be ejected from Syria, this would weaken Hizballah in Lebanon substantially.
Another idea reportedly promoted by King Abdullah of Jordan and President Fattah El-Sisi of Egypt, is to try to drive a wedge between the Assad regime and its Iranian backer.
However, the idea that the Assad regime will be strong enough to push back on Iran’s activities has so far failed to stand up to the test of reality. Iran’s control of Al Bukamal, a Syrian city on the Iraq border, is a clear case in point. Iran uses the city as part of its ground corridor to supply Syrian proxies with weapons and personnel.
The Iranians have complained bitterly about Assad granting lucrative reconstruction contracts to Russia at the expense of Iran, and the failure to significantly expand Iranian-Syrian trade. This suggests that Damascus can make some decisions on its own – but not many. The Syrian regime remains weak, only partially in control of Syrian territory. It is unable to apply any meaningful sovereignty without its two main backers, Iran and Russia.
The idea that pressure on Assad can prevent the Iranians from continuing to set up terrorist bases on the Syrian Golan Heights, deter Assad from cooperating with those efforts, or turning a blind eye to them, or to force Assad from stopping Iran’s tendency of embedding its military bases in Syrian ones – is simply unrealistic.
The Assad regime is simply too weak, intertwined with Iran, and dependent on it to be separated from the Iranian mother ship – even if it wanted to. For now, the shadow war is set to continue.
Reprinted with author’s permission from The Investigative Project on Terrorism