Ex-defense official: Israel failing in its mission of blocking Iran in Syria

Retired general Amos Gilad warns that while ties with Russia are crucial, they are not the key to keeping the Islamic Republic at bay

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Former senior defense official Amos Gilad speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on February 12, 2019. (Screen capture: IDC)
Former senior defense official Amos Gilad speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on February 12, 2019. (Screen capture: IDC)

A former chief Israeli defense strategist warned on Tuesday that the Jewish state was failing to force Iran to abandon its plans to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, despite the success of the Israel Defense Forces’ strikes in the country.

“On the tactical and operational level, the strikes on the Iranians are powerful. But on a strategic level, we are not succeeding,” said Amos Gilad, a former IDF general and powerful head of the Defense Ministry’s political affairs bureau.

Gilad made his comments at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya at a conference on Russia’s involvement in the Middle East, hosted by the university’s Institute for Policy and Strategy and the Washington-based Kennan Institute.

His remarks came hours before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that the IDF had conducted a strike in Syria on Monday night.

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)

Israel has for years accused Tehran of trying to establish a permanent military presence in Syria from which the Islamic Republic could threaten the Jewish state, much in the same way it does from Lebanon with its proxy there, the Hezbollah terrorist group.

In order to prevent such an entrenchment, Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria in recent years. Until recently, Israel had refused to publicly acknowledge its activities in Syria, maintaining an official policy of ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying the raids. Over the past two months, however, Israeli officials have increasingly acknowledged the military’s activities in Syria.

Many of these public confirmations have come in the form of boasts regarding the military’s successes against Iran, by both Netanyahu and former IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, who made the comments in interviews ahead of his retirement last month.

According to Netanyahu and Eisenkot, as well as other officials, the Israeli military had largely blocked Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, holding at bay the 100,000-troop-strong fighting force Tehran had intended to establish along the border with Israel.

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

However, Gilad said that while Israel’s campaign may have achieved specific tactical successes, it has not resulted in a larger victory that would see Iran abandoning its plans to establish a front in Syria from which to attack Israel.

“The IDF, with tremendous assistance from Military Intelligence and the other intelligence services, has succeeded in hitting the Iranian presence in the Golan Heights very hard. These are serious strikes and accomplishments,” he said.

But Gilad added: “We are not succeeding in convincing the Iranians to stop investing their resources in entrenching in the Golan Heights.”

The former senior intelligence officer did not offer a recommendation on how to persuade or force Iran to leave Syria, but did reject the notion that the solution lay with Russia, Tehran’s partner in propping up Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

“There is a fairy tale that the Russians are able to drive the Iranians out of Syria. I’ll allow myself, as someone with dozens of years of experience with both sides, to say that this is not true,” he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as they prepare to deliver joint statements in the Israeli leader’s Jerusalem residence, June 25, 2012. (AP/Jim Hollander, Pool/File)

While he doesn’t see Russia as the Jewish state’s hope for removing Iran from Syria — or even as a strategic partner — Gilad, who has led the IDC’s Institute for Policy and Strategy since 2017, said Israel should work to maintain a positive working relationship with Moscow in order to avoid conflict as each country operates in Syria.

According to Gilad, Russia does not have the necessary capabilities in Syria to remove Iran from the country, even if it were concerned that the Islamic Republic’s activities there could threaten the long-term stability of Moscow ally Assad’s regime.

It is also not likely to take action against Iran as the two countries are currently working together to help Assad fully take control of Syria.

Therefore, the best scenario for Israel is one in which Russia largely turns a blind eye to the IDF’s strikes.

“Officially, the Russians will denounce the Israeli actions. But in reality, I think the Russians are fairly tolerant of the IDF’s activities so long as they’re not done too publicly and as long as they don’t harm Russian soldiers,” he said.

Israeli and Russian military delegations meet in Moscow, Russia, December 12, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Despite some tensions, that is the current state of affairs, with the Israeli and Russian militaries maintaining regular contact in order to avoid inadvertent conflict in Syria, according to Gilad.

“Now we’re in a comfortable place [with Russia],” he said. “But the situation can flip.”

Were Russia to suddenly turn against Israel, it would be relatively easy for Moscow to begin restricting the IDF’s operations in Syria, starting with verbal threats and the “wagging” of weapons systems, followed by “I don’t need to detail what,” Gilad said.

As an example, he cited the ongoing tensions with Moscow that arose following the downing of a Russian spy plane and its 15 crew members by Syrian air defenses following an Israeli airstrike in September. The Russian Defense Ministry blamed the Israeli pilots for the incident, claiming they used the Russian aircraft as a shield — which Israel has repeatedly denied.

“Suddenly a plane gets shot down. Who’s to blame? The Jews. It’s not a new thing in history,” Gilad said with a wry smile.

In the aftermath of the downing of the spy plane, Russia provided Syria with the powerful S-300 air defense system, which it previously had refrained from doing at Israel’s request. The advanced anti-aircraft battery, which was delivered in October, is believed to be approaching full operational status, according to satellite imagery analysis.

Ties between Israel and Russia remain strained some five months later, with the Russian deputy foreign minister saying last week that the incident had not been “left behind” and calling on Israel to cease airstrikes in Syria, which he said were “unlawful.”

Later this month, Netanyahu will travel to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of ongoing efforts to mend relations between the two countries.

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