In Syria, A Growing Strategic Threat to Israel — And Risk of Escalation

Photo: David Silverman/Getty

Bottom Line: As the Syrian regime consolidates power, with the help of Russia, Iran, and Iranian proxy Hezbollah, its combined forces are growing bolder, presenting an increasing strategic threat to Israel. In response, Israel has begun adjusting its policy of selective intervention, recently targeting Assad air defense systems in response to Iranian incursions. Israel’s increased military involvement in Syria, however, risks unintentional escalation with Tehran.

Background: Since 1974, Syria has remained an active enemy of the state of Israel, but one that can be predictably deterred from taking broad conventional action. This realization allowed Israel to maintain a semblance of stability along the countries’ shared border, but with the advent of the Syrian civil war, this began to change.

  • The initial developments of the Syrian civil war prompted Israel to seek a policy of limited intervention. With its longtime adversary in the Syrian government–backed by Iran and Hezbollah–on one side, and the rising dominance of jihadist militant groups present in the opposition, Israel did not have a faction to support.
  • Instead, it focused on securing its border along the Golan Heights to keep the Syrian conflict spilling over, a campaign that included active efforts to disrupt Hezbollah and Iranian entrenchment. In January 2015, Israel launched airstrikes against a convoy of Hezbollah militants and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers – the paramilitary protectors of the 1979 Iranian revolution – who were travelling through the eastern Golan Heights. The strike reportedly killed an Iranian general who was part of the IRGC’s expeditionary Quds Force.
  • Aside from acting to protect its northern border, Israel also seeks to prevent Iran from gaining a strategic position in Syria via Hezbollah, as it has in southern Lebanon following its 2006 war with the Shia militant group. These efforts largely took the form of airstrikes in Syria against convoys and storage facilities of advanced weapons destined for Hezbollah’s Lebanon stronghold.
  • The intent of these selective measures is to inhibit Hezbollah from building its capacity to inflict damage deep within Israel and maintain the conventional military imbalance between Israeli forces and Hezbollah. An example is the potential proliferation of the Iran-manufactured, GPS-guided Raad missiles to Hezbollah, reported by Israeli media, which would significantly improve the group’s ability to attack strategic targets in Israel, a concern expressed to Israeli media by anonymous sources.

Joshua Krasna, former Israeli diplomat

“Since 2011, the symbiotic relationship between Hezbollah and the Syrian regime has become much closer: more advanced systems were transferred to Hezbollah, and the organization established fixed installations within Syria and enjoyed, to a large extent, carte blanche in their activities and movements within the country. These installations, which served inter alia as rear logistical bases for arms smuggling activity into Lebanon, and many of which were collocated with official Syrian facilities, have reportedly been the target of numerous unclaimed air attacks in the past seven years.”

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, former chief of Military Intelligence, Israel Defense Forces

“According to recently retired Air Force Chief Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amir Eshel, Israel has launched over 100 strikes on Syrian territory since the start of the civil war. That being said, 95 percent of those strikes targeted weapons transfers to Hezbollah. The primary strategic aim has been to prevent Iran from using the war as an opportunity to provide its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah with advanced arms and the ability to produce such weaponry.”

Issue: The war in Syria has gradually shifted in the Syrian government’s favor, largely due to support from Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. This shift in power balance creates an opportunity for Iran to further its military presence in Syria and use it as a staging ground for any future military activity against Israel as well as to produce and transport advanced military capabilities for Hezbollah.

Robert Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations, CIA

“Israel has been very vocal about their concerns of the growing strength of Hezbollah in Syria: that Hezbollah troops are becoming bloodied; becoming frequent warfighters; are getting better and better at combined armed efforts in terms of being able to move numbers of people in coordination with support from Syrian air, and using light armor and heavy weapons. They are aware of the Iranian and Hezbollah capability to control drones, with drones flying across the border for collection capabilities and looking at Israeli border defenses.”

  • Iranian-backed forces in Syria are estimated to number 1,000 Quds Force members, 7,000 Hezbollah fighters and 10,000 members of other Shia militias, according to a October 2017 report by the German Institute for International Security Affairs. Israel has begun viewing both Lebanon and Syria as the staging ground for any conventional or proxy conflict with Iran and has become more proactive in its containment efforts.
  • The primary threats of an embedded Iranian military presence in Syria to Israel largely include: the possibility that Iran could deploy its own advanced weapons systems – such as surface-to-surface missiles, air defense systems and anti-ship missiles – to Syrian soil under Tehran’s or Hezbollah control; that Iran could use Syrian military infrastructure such as air and naval bases, or build its own as Russia has done; and that Iran could build up and deploy its forces in Syria to the country’s southern border with Israel.
  • Following Israel’s concerns of a growing and potentially long-term Iranian presence on its doorstep being absent in the July 2017 Russia-U.S. brokered ceasefire deal in Syria, Israel has become more militarily active in Syria. A point of departure was Israel’s September 2017 airstrike on a Syrian unconventional weapons research facility in Hama, a reported central component of Syria’s advanced missile and/or chemical weapons production.
  • The situation escalated significantly earlier this month when Israel responded to an incursion by an Iranian-controlled unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into its airspace by taking out T-4 airbase in central Syria from which the UAV had been controlled. One Israeli F-16 fighter was shot down in the process, leading Israel to retaliate with two waves of strikes targeting Syrian air bases, air defense systems, command and control facilities and IRGC locations. The incident was unprecedented, and could prompt further escalation between Israel and Iran. At the same time, the significant destruction of Syria’s air defense opens them up to further Israeli air campaigns – a prospect that may quell belligerent activity in the near future.

Robert Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations, CIA

“The IRGC has been reportedly building its own militia add-ons, building their bases near Syrian military bases because they thought that gave them some protection from retaliation. In a couple cases where drones have been launched, it is believed that they are from traditional Syrian military bases from which the IRGC or their affiliates are operating. So to get at those, they have to take out the air defense. You’ll notice that when they took out the air defense, almost everyone that they took out was co-located where the Iranian-supported militias have a presence.”

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, former chief of Military Intelligence, Israel Defense Forces

“The message was clear: if Assad tries to threaten Israeli aircrafts, then Israel will decimate his capabilities to do so. It was more or less saying the Assad regime must either risk losing its air defenses or accept the fact that it cannot use them. Because of that, Damascus is far more exposed today due to lack of air defense than it was only two weeks earlier. The potential for escalation is high. If Iran remains determined to build a significant and advanced military force in Syria and Lebanon I could foresee a situation in which it escalates to a serious military conflict. That conflict can lead to an all-out war – the first war with the Shia axis, in which Israel fights against Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah.”

Rhea Siers, former Deputy Associate Director for Policy, NSA

“There is very little holding back the Israeli government if they believe the Iranians are aggressively seeking to expand their forces and facilities and provide logistical support to Hezbollah by way of the IRGC. Israeli preemptive actions at the earliest possible stage (like the recent attack) are to be expected. And the Iranians cannot substantially hide their activities and efforts in Syria — Israeli intelligence (of all types) is most certainly focusing on them with laser-like intensity.”

Emile Nakhleh, former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

“Although Israel continues to retain air superiority over Syria, underestimating the Syrian capability could result in shooting down more Israeli fighter jets in the coming months. Miscalculation could also produce another war with Syria, which potentially could involve Russia and the United States. Nor would Lebanon and Hezbollah be able to escape getting caught in such a war. In the long-run, starting another regional war or scuttling the Iran nuclear deal will be detrimental to American national security.”

Response: Despite close relations with Washington, the U.S. lacks a concrete policy for the Syrian conflict apart from combating a now-diminished ISIS. Russia similarly views its stake in Syria as preserving the Assad regime, not necessarily checking Tehran’s expanding influence in Syria. This means Israel will likely apply its own independent effort to actively contain Iranian influence and Hezbollah’s growth to its north.

Robert Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations, CIA

“The U.S. involvement is absent. So you have the Israelis, the Russians, the Syrians and the Turks backing their own interests rather than collective interests in the region – because the U.S., who has been a player and was the player for many years, has stepped back. That was true in the past administration, but with the current administration, it is a complete absence of any type of policy focus on what is going on in the region. So in terms of the U.S. role, it is absent.”

  • Israel is likely to more aggressively reinforce its set of “red lines,” including the deployment or production of advanced weapons systems by Iran or Hezbollah on Syrian soil, as well as the long-term presence of Iranian of Hezbollah forces to Syrian naval and air bases.

Emile Nakhleh, former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

“Israel’s attacks on IRGC targets in Syria will certainly increase the potential for escalation of a military confrontation between Israel and Iran, which would raise the specter of a regional war between the two countries. If Washington is not interested in getting bogged down in such a war, it should counsel Israel to show more restraint. American diplomacy must become more engaged in order to avoid such a potentially disastrous war. Let’s hope that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s political troubles at home, generated by his potential indictment, are not driving him to start a regional war in order to change the domestic conversation!”

Anticipation: Continuous airstrikes against Syrian, Hezbollah or Iranian strategic infrastructure could eventually damage Israel-Russia relations. Moscow has been reported to be seeking an agreeable level Iranian presence in Syria while satisfying Israeli concerns. This would be in line with the Kremlin’s primary goal of preserving the Assad regime by preventing a conventional conflict between Israel and Syria. Russia also presents a de-escalatory factor for Iran-back players, who are unlikely to seek out confrontation with Moscow. The Kremlin, however, is unlikely to take on mediator role.

Robert Richer, former Associate Deputy Director for Operations, CIA

“The Russians are dealing with everybody: in terms of intelligence sharing with the Israelis; they have increased their relationship with the Turks, and they have a really solid relationship with Syria and Iran. All of those parties are at each others’ throats in one way or another. But on the other hand, all have kind of the same goal – the Iranians, the Russians, the Turks and the Israelis all want a cohesive, united country in Syria.”

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, former chief of Military Intelligence, Israel Defense Forces

“Russia has an interest in maintaining stability and the de-escalation/reconstruction process, and it could otherwise find itself in the middle of a conflict it does not want. Russia is not Israel’s enemy, and this was evident during the escalatory events earlier in February when the Russians restrained both sides to prevent further escalation.”

Joshua Krasna, former Israeli diplomat

“I estimate that as the threat to the Syrian regime decreases, Russian recognition of the threat of increased strategic instability emanating from Syria towards Israel and Jordan, and increased potential for regional conflict which may lay waste to the many strategic benefits the Russians have derived from their intervention, may lead Moscow to more assess critically the Iranian prominence in Syrian affairs.”

Rhea Siers, former Deputy Associate Director for Policy, NSA

“Russia’s primary objective in Syria is to sustain the Assad regime; this does not necessarily equate to support of Iranian ambitions, which are clearly to embed themselves in Syria, possibly build manufacturing facilities for missiles to their Hezbollah surrogates, and to successfully establish military facilities for their proxies as well. So Russian and Iranian purposes are not strategically identical. Netanyahu is engaged in a very delicate dance with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, as Israel has benefitted from its deconfliction with the Russians over Syrian airspace.”

Emile Nakhleh, former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service

“Although Putin and Netanyahu have had several conversations about Israeli strikes against Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria, Russia reportedly has counseled Israel against the potential escalation of a military confrontation with Iran. Russia will unlikely play a peacemaker role between Israel and Iran. Neither the Netanyahu government nor the Iranian military, especially the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) whose forces are fighting in Syria, are interested in effecting rapprochement between the two countries. Besides, Israel would not embark on such a step without consulting with Washington. Two factors seem to impede Russia’s peace-making efforts between Israel and Iran: the political future of Netanyahu in light of his potential indictment on corruption; and Iran’s fears that the Trump administration, with Israel and Saudi Arabia cheering on the sidelines, is serious about scuttling the Iran nuclear deal.”

Levi Maxey is cyber and technology analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @lemax13.


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3 Replies to “In Syria, A Growing Strategic Threat to Israel — And Risk of Escalation”
  1. With all due respect, this read appears to cement the view that Netanyahoo will try to scuttle any peace process to take the heat off his own problems, at least at home in Israel. How the present plays out down the road, hopefully it won’t end up pitting the other players into a conflict no one seems to want. Saving face is one thing, dragging too many opponents into a combative situation, should unite restraint.

  2. In a somewhat ironic twist, the military defeat of ISIS as a coherent fighting force has complicated the overall strategic picture for all the major players in the Syrian conflict. However unwilling and suspicious of each others motives the various coalition partners were, they at least had a common goal in thwarting the spread of ISIS and ensuring its eventual defeat.

    Now with the major players free to pursue their own agendas, we’re in a very dangerous game of brinkmanship where the slightest miscalculation could lead to a major state vs. state conflict, and I don’t think anyone really knows how events are going to play out. One thing is for sure though, the Assad regime isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and Russia has played a skillful hand thus far and really is in the driving seat. Has Russia overplayed its hand?… hard to say at this stage.

    One thing is for sure though, for the first time the USA has found itself on the periphery of titanic events in the Arab World, and has been consigned as a bit-player. To protect its foreign policy interests, the Trump Administration needs to clearly elaborate and put forward a compelling case to explain its military presence in eastern Syria. It also needs to adopt a much more muscular foreign policy towards Turkey and clearly state that threats against US assets and allies will not be tolerated. Perhaps with the recent bungled attack on SDF forces by mercenaries from the Wagner Group and the devastating US military response, we’re finally starting to see this come into effect.

  3. This discussion makes some very good points, leaves a few things out… and brought in the now standard anti-Israel disinformation of Emile Nakleh. In his effort to blame Bibi for escalation in Syria, he totally ignores Iran sending a replica of the US stealth drone into Israel. That’s a significant oversight, bordering on a pathological problem pattern for him based on his past writings on TCB. Especially the recent Jerusalem article. Though this next point was touched on a bit, there is also a significant bit of it this discussion missed beyond that the Hezbollah/Syria/Russia/Iran axis still has work to do to consolidate their gains. The US military is in the process of testing the rail gun’s HVP as simultaneously both an offensive weapon, and missile defense weapon fired from 155mm Howitzers. Israel has 600 self propelled howitzers that fire 10 rounds per minute. My understanding is the testing will be done in less than 2 years or less. Assuming the US transfers this shell to Israel… there is then a distributed missile defense system that can counter Hizbollah salvos. Add in the Trophy active protection system to defeat ATGMs, including the latest Kornets… and Hizbollah/Iran/Syria are faced with a set of pressing problems. Do they escalate with Israel while their forces are stretched thin in Syria and risk the Israelis wiping out much of their military presence thus reopening the door for the opposition to go on the offensive. Or, do they focus on consolidating their positions in Syria long enough for the Israelis to effectively counter all of their combined threats to Israeli civilians and the IDF. I would posit that the Israelis crushing Syria’s air defenses *after* the F-16 went down was something the Iranians/Hezbollah/Syria would do well to have digested by now. Not to mention the public blame the IAF laid on the pilots for not paying enough attention to the missile warning system to avoid being shot down when they should not have been shot down. I would not be surprised to see the Israelis strike in Syria again soon just to show they can and will continue to do so even after an F-16 was lost.