Firing at Golan, Iran seeks new balance of deterrence with Israel; it may fail

Expansive IDF assault on Iranian installations reveals to all parties, and especially Tehran, that the Jewish state retains the upper hand on northern frontier and will use it

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

In this photo provided on November 5, 2018, by the Iranian Army, a Sayyad 2 missile is fired by the Talash air defense system during drills in an undisclosed location in Iran. (Iranian Army/AP)
In this photo provided on November 5, 2018, by the Iranian Army, a Sayyad 2 missile is fired by the Talash air defense system during drills in an undisclosed location in Iran. (Iranian Army/AP)

The Israeli assault on Syrian territory early Monday morning was one of the broadest in recent years, and certainly the most substantial since an IDF airstrike last September during which Syrian air defenses shot down a Russian spy plane, killing its 15-member crew.

The tension that incident sparked between Moscow and Jerusalem led to limits on Israeli activities in Syrian territory, and any action in Syrian airspace attributed to Israel in its aftermath drew vigorous condemnations from the Kremlin.

Monday’s operation, then, wasn’t just another airstrike. Israel was sending a message not only to Damascus but also to Moscow that rocket attacks such as Sunday’s targeting of the Hermon ski resort (which was thwarted by Iron Dome) won’t go unanswered.

The rocket from Syria, which the military attributed to Iran, was fired by one of the pro-Iranian groups operating inside Syria, likely a Shiite militia backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Quds Force expeditionary arm, commanded by Qassem Soleimani. The attack was carried out in the wake of an airstrike in the Damascus area on Sunday morning attributed to Israel.

Some Israeli pundits have argued that the Iranian attack was a response to the apparent end of Israel’s longstanding policy of ambiguity, under which Israeli officials refrained from taking explicit responsibility for airstrikes or other military operations in Syria over the years.

An explosion, reportedly during Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, Syria, on January 21, 2019. (screen capture: YouTube)

But this may be a naive view. There is no reason to assume that the rocket fire from Syria was triggered simply by an outgoing chief of staff’s interview or a prime minister’s comment about strikes in Syria. The Syrians themselves have publicized each Israeli strike in their own media, and Israel’s supposed policy of ambiguity (a relic of the 2007 strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor) hasn’t been much more than a slogan for quite a while. It certainly no longer shapes the response from Damascus to Israeli attacks. The reality of online news reporting has changed dramatically in the past 12 years, and it is no longer possible to conceal significant airstrikes, especially those carried out in Damascus, Syria’s capital.

The rocket fire at Israel from Syria is probably better understood as an Iranian attempt to create a new balance of power on the Israeli-Syrian front — to generate the expectation that an Israeli attack in Syrian territory will result in fire on Israeli territory. In other words, it marked a new effort to create deterrence against Israel.

Yet those who fired the rocket clearly were trying to avoid getting dragged into a larger war; otherwise they would have launched dozens of projectiles. The goal, it seemed, was to begin to construct a new architecture of deterrence, while limiting the chances of sparking a broader confrontation.

As of Monday afternoon, it remained to be seen how the Syrians or Iranians would respond, in turn, to the unexpectedly strong Israeli reaction. Though human rights monitors say 11 people were killed in the Israeli strikes early Monday, four of them reportedly Syrian soldiers and the rest possibly Iranians, and though Iran’s air force chief was quoted as vowing Israel’s “destruction” on Monday, it is still too soon to know if Bashar Assad and his Iranian allies plan to respond at all.

Russian television, meanwhile, reported on the strike, and explained how it was carried out. But as of midday Monday, there was no condemnation of it from the Kremlin. That’s a stark change from previous attacks attributed to Israel in recent months. Russia may now be trying to dial back the tension with Jerusalem that it has worked for months to stoke. The two militaries have even exchanged delegations recently, with Israeli officials traveling to Moscow and a Russian military delegation reciprocating with a visit to Israel last week. Moscow seems to be trying to get its relationship with Israel back on track.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, center, attends a meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Revolutionary Guard commanders in Tehran, Iran, September 18, 2016. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The limited Syrian response, thus far, to the Israeli airstrike is best understood by taking in the broader strategic problems facing Syria.

First, despite US President Donald Trump’s recent announcement of a withdrawal of US forces from Syria, it appears that for the next few months Washington does not intend to fully remove its troops in the east of the country. It’s possible the delay is the result of opposition to the move from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton. In any case, for the time being US forces will continue to operate in the area of al-Tanef, where the Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian borders meet.

That fact places limits on any Iranian response, as it leaves in place a key obstacle to Iran completing its land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean coast in Lebanon, and thus limits the transfer of the kind of significant Iranian forces to Syrian territory it would need for a confrontation with Israel. Thus far, neither the Revolutionary Guards nor the Quds Force have managed to bring to Syria aircraft, helicopters, tanks or advanced missiles for use by Iranian forces there. Efforts to ship precise weapons to Syria continue, but a significant Iranian entrenchment on Syrian territory has, for the time being at least, been staved off.

The second development limiting the response to Israel is the growing strife within Iran as the fight between the conservative elements in the regime and the relatively moderate camp around President Hassan Rouhani fight over control of the country’s Syria policy. The former group, which includes the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards and the Quds Force, are urging a deepening and expanding of Iran’s involvement in Syria, while the latter are calling for an “Iran first” policy amid the expectation that new US sanctions will further weaken an already fragile economy.

Satellite images released by the IDF of what it says are Iranian facilities inside a Syrian army base near Damascus, which were destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on January 21, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

A third issue involves Turkey. After Trump’s announcement of an impending American withdrawal, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepared his forces for a ground assault on Kurdish militias in northeast Syria that had been protected because they were allied with the US in the war against Islamic State.

But then American policy abruptly changed, again — and, of course, may shift yet again without notice, given the unpredictability of the US president — and Erdogan faced not only a delay in the promised US withdrawal, but aggressive rhetoric from Washington condemning a Turkish assault on the groups that have fought loyally alongside the US throughout the Syrian civil war.

Erdogan hesitated. He understood, and for the time being appears to still understand, that an attack on Kurds is one thing; a direct confrontation with American forces in the region is quite another.

Israel’s robust response to Sunday’s rocket fire suggests Israel believes its opponents in Syria are constrained by all these factors, giving Israel an excellent opportunity to work to downgrade the military assets at Iran’s disposal so close to the Golan frontier. The quiet from Russia and overt backing from the US, not to mention Syrian and Iranian foot-dragging in delivering their own responses, suggest that assessment may be correct.

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