Ex-air force chief: Only Russia can get the Iranians out of Syria

Former head of IDF’s fight against Tehran declares victory, but his retired comrade says military might will not be enough

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Former head of the air force, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv on January 28, 2019. (INSS)
Former head of the air force, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv on January 28, 2019. (INSS)

A former head of the Israeli Air Force on Monday said that only Russia, and not Israeli military might, can fully remove Iran from Syria.

“There is no military action that is going to get Iran out of Syria. Only a diplomatic effort can get Iran out of Syria, and this diplomatic effort has just one address. It’s called Russia,” said Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel.

However, the former air force chief, who retired in 2017, warned that there was a “good chance” that Russia would “turn against” Israel.

Eshel made his remarks at the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. He was joined in the onstage interview by former military strategist Brig. Gen. (res.) Yoram Hamo and Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, who led the Israel Defense Forces’ fight against Iran.

Alon all but declared victory over the Islamic Republic vis-à-vis Syria, saying Israel had largely blocked Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in the country.

Asked if the IDF had succeeded in preventing this Iranian entrenchment in Syria, Alon responded, “Yes, to a large extent, yes.”

Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon speaks at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv on January 28, 2019. (INSS)

Israel has long warned that Iran was working to establish a military presence in Syria in order to form a second front from which to threaten the Jewish state — in addition to the one posed by its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In order to prevent such a situation, Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria over the past several years, according to defense officials, including last week, after the IDF said Iran launched a medium-range surface-to-surface missile at the Golan Heights.

President Reuven Rivlin, who also spoke at the INSS conference on Monday, warned that Iran was likely to “intensify its responses” to Israel’s strikes against its forces in Syria.

In recent months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot and other senior Israeli officials have begun claiming that these raids have successfully beaten back Iran and prevented it from establishing a 100,000-member fighting force that it had planned to form along Syria’s border with Israel.

“There is no second front, with intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities,” Alon said.

Satellite photos released by Israeli firm ImageSat International on December 27, 2018, show damaged facilities in Syria, purportedly used by Iran, that were targeted in an airstrike attributed to Israel. (ImageSat International)

The outgoing general, who is due to retire from the military shortly after being passed over for the position of chief of staff, said there is a significant gap between what Iran planned to accomplish in terms of establishing a military presence in Syria and what the Islamic Republic has actually achieved.

Alon, who was given the task of leading the IDF’s fight against Iran in July 2018, added that the issue of Iran’s military presence in Syria was becoming an increasingly divisive issue there, in light of the regular attacks by Israel and the high costs associated with it for the cash-strapped country.

The general recommended that Israel seek to “widen the cracks” in Iranian society in an effort to pressure Tehran into fully removing its forces from Syria.

Eshel, the former air force chief, however, maintained that “no one else” but Russia was capable of forcing Iran to remove its troops from Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, meets with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Qingdao on June 9, 2018. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AFP)

The three current and former IDF generals discussed the “Eisenkot Doctrine” — the policies by which the outgoing chief of staff led the military during his four-year tenure.

A mainstay of that doctrine was the notion of the “campaign between the wars” or the regular operations that the IDF performs in order to stave off full-blown conflict and to keep Israel’s enemies as weak as possible in case one does break out.

“The four elements of the campaign between the wars under Eisenkot are striking threats, acting against Iranian entrenchment in Syria and encouraging a diplomatic effort to remove Iranians from Syria, delaying a war using actions that demonstrate superiority, and creating better conditions for victory in case a war does start,” Eshel said.

On Sunday, Eisenkot lauded the IDF for countering Hezbollah’s and Iran’s efforts during his tenure, in his first public remarks since retiring on January 15.

Eisenkot too boasted that the IDF had prevented Iran and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah from establishing a second front in Syria from which to fight against the Jewish state.

“This project was basically foiled,” he said.

Former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, right, is interviewed by Amos Yadlin at the Institute for National Security Studies annual conference in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2019. (INSS)

According to Eisenkot, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its expeditionary wing, the Quds Force, had “grandiose” plans to turn Syrian into an Iranian puppet state, but they were blocked by Israel.

Still, he walked back somewhat overly enthusiastic comments made by him and other senior Israeli officials about the military’s victory over Iran in Syria.

“The Iranian military presence still exists, but the gap between the goal that the Quds Force set in 2015-2016 and the reality that exists in the beginning of 2019 is significant,” he said.

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