The series of strikes shaking Damascus and its southern countryside last Friday night now appear to have been the most extensive wave of airstrikes by Israel against Iranian-linked targets in Syria since September. They also came only a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s high-profile anti-Iran speech in Cairo, part of his of the Middle East which, along with National Security Adviser John Bolton’s visit, were intended to reassure U.S. allies following President Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. Taken together, the events indicate Israel feels it can not rely on the U.S. in its efforts to counter Iran’s regional ambitions. Without either the U.S. or Russia stepping in to constrain Iran, Israel will keep striking targets in Syria, thus increasing the chances of a large-scale conflagration.
Since late 2012, Israel has carried out thousands of airstrikes in Syria, intending to disrupt the transfer of advanced weaponry from Iran to Lebanese Hezbollah through Syria, and prevent the establishment of permanent Iranian bases in the war-torn country. Following Russian intervention in the Syrian war in September 2015, Israel and Russia came to an agreement allowing Israel to continue carrying out such strikes. Under the deal hammered out between Jerusalem and Moscow, Russian servicemen stationed inside the anti-aircraft batteries Russia deploys in Syria would switch off their systems once Israel notified Russia of an impending strike, minutes in advance.
In September 2018, however, all of this came to a screeching halt when, in response to an Israeli airstrike, Syrian air defenses accidentally shot down a Russian military aircraft, killing all 15 crew members on board. Russia blamed Israel for the death of its soldiers, transferred advanced air defense batteries—the S-300 and S-400—to the Syrian military, stopped turning off Russian air defense systems, and demanded that Israel notify Russia hours in advance of every strike. Initially, Israel halted all attacks in Syria, but then began carrying out smaller strikes. Yesterday’s attack, apparently hitting four different locations, is the largest since September, signaling Israel’s insistence on continuing to counter Iran’s efforts to ferry weapons to Hezbollah.
Inconsistent policy out of Washington has complicated this situation since the beginning. There’s also ample reason to believe it has helped trigger Israel’s recommitment to airstrikes within the country. Since Trump’s election, Israeli officials have voiced frustration about the disparity between the Trump administration’s bellicose anti-Iran rhetoric and its conduct on the ground. While some administration officials attempted to transform the U.S.’s anti-ISIS intervention in Syria to one intended to stymie Iranian expansionism, Trump rebuffed such efforts. Instead, his sudden in December of the decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria dashed whatever hope remained among Israeli policy-makers that the U.S. would help counter Iranian ambitions in the region. In this context, the aggressive language toward Iran in Pompeo’s Cairo speech on Thursday, only highlights the disparity between U.S. actions and rhetoric.
Despite publicly excoriating Iran and pulling out of the nuclear accord known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Trump administration in its first two years maintained a Syria policy almost identical to that of the Obama administration—whose Middle East policy Pompeo criticized at length in his partisan Cairo speech. So the December announcement of U.S. withdrawal from Syria, understandably celebrated as a victory in Tehran, was seen as a major blow in Israel. Israeli national security depends on U.S. power projection and reputation as a reliable ally. While most international attention focused on the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria, an area under the control of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, Israeli officials were concerned about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from al-Tanf, on the Iraq-Jordan-Syria border triangle. The removal of U.S. forces and the Syrian Arab rebels they back in the area would significantly decrease the length of the ground line of supply Iran has invested in creating, which spans from Iran, through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Currently, Iran is forced to use the longer route, through Deir Ezzor, eastern Syria, to bypass U.S. troops. And at this point, it is unclear whether White House national security adviser John Bolton’s assurances to Israel, stating that U.S. forces will remain in al-Tanf, reflect the will of Trump and eventual U.S. policy.
Under these constraints and with decreasing leverage due to the U.S. withdrawal, Israel is determined to continue countering the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah and the establishment of Iranian military bases. But in its current form, that’s probably a losing battle: The hundreds of Israeli strikes since 2012 failed to prevent Hezbollah from significantly augmenting its rocket and missile arsenal. Such strikes are also ineffective in countering Iran’s influence over the Syrian Army and the local Syrian militias it backs, to say nothing of Iranian efforts to win the hearts and minds of Syrian civilians, mainly through targeted humanitarian and financial relief.
The incoherence of U.S. policy in the Middle East coupled with Trump’s isolationist instincts leave Israel on its own to face Iran’s presence beyond its northern border—not a situation likely to help those in the security world sleep at night. Tehran and Hezbollah feel emboldened after securing a victory for their ally Assad against the armed opposition while increasing their influence in the country. The withdrawal also necessarily undermines the appearance of the United States as a reliable ally in the Middle East, both to Israel and others.
Israel is left with few options. The Israeli Defense Forces will continue bombing occasional weapon transfers, while hoping those raids do not lead Iran to ship weapons directly to Lebanon by air. Jerusalem will continue engaging Russia in an effort to get the Kremlin to encourage Damascus and Iran to halt Iranian buildup in Syria. The conflict between Iranian and Israeli interests in Syria, coupled with Russia’s inability or unwillingness to serve as a mediator between them, ensure that Syria will remain an arena for this regional contest. One wrong move and the conflict currently contained in Syria could spill into Lebanon and Israel.