Israel’s campaign of airstrikes in Syria has driven Iran to change tack in the country, moving the bulk of its troops and bases away from the Israeli border and toward what it sees as a safer location closer to Iraq, according to Military Intelligence assessments released Wednesday.
At the same time, the report said Iran appears to be adopting a more aggressive stance toward Israel, as evident by its launch of a missile into the northern Golan Heights last month, in response to a reported strike by the Israel Defense Forces. While most troops are being moved away, some pro-Iranian forces remain on the border with Israel and have established observation posts from which they can monitor Israeli military activities.
The intelligence report said Iran’s inclination to retaliate against Israeli airstrikes appears to be buoyed by the Syrian military’s recent acquisition of advanced Russian S-300 air defense batteries. The IDF does not believe Syrian troops have yet been fully trained to operate the powerful anti-aircraft system, but the military is prepared to destroy it the first time an S-300 battery fires at Israeli aircraft — despite the potential diplomatic blowback from Moscow, which gave Damascus the system.
In Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces believes the restive enclave may soon see another major conflict — the fourth in just over a decade — as its Hamas rulers may deliberately spark a destructive war as a way to gain both international sympathy and, afterwards, an influx of reconstruction funds to replenish its empty coffers.
The assessments were part of Military Intelligence’s forecast for 2019, portions of which were released to the media by the IDF on Wednesday.
Military Intelligence also believes Iran is still adhering to the 2015 nuclear deal, under which Tehran agreed to limit its production of nuclear material and in exchange receive sanctions relief, despite the United States dropping out of the deal in 2017 — echoing similar findings released by American intelligence services earlier this month.
The military believes that were Iran to decide to break from the agreement, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it would take approximately one year for the country to produce fissile material and another year to turn that into a functioning bomb. No such decision has been made, though Israeli Military Intelligence believes Iranian officials are considering violating the nuclear deal by enriching uranium beyond the allowed limit — as a negotiation tactic.
Iran under pressure from sanctions
Israel sees a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat, and Israeli officials have vowed that the Jewish state would take all actions necessary to prevent such an occurrence.
The IDF believes the return of American sanctions against Iran are causing serious problems for the cash-strapped regime. As a result of the renewed sanctions, Tehran has scaled back its financial support for militias in Syria and Iraq, the Israeli military believes.
Domestically, the Iranian government is also facing significant criticism in light of the country’s deteriorating economy — the cost of food has more than doubled in some cases — casting a pall over the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the 1979 revolution which brought the Islamic government to power.
However, a grassroots movement to overthrow the regime does not appear to be on the horizon, according to the IDF’s assessments.
Iran changing tactics in Syria
In addition to pulling its forces and weapons depots from areas close to Israel — including from the Damascus International Airport, which Israel has bombed on multiple occasions — Iran is also scaling back the number of troops in Syria, the Israel Defense Forces believes.
However, the Islamic Republic is not giving up on its plans to threaten and attack Israel, rather it is simply altering its methods to do so, the military believes.
This means moving its focus from the Golan and southern Syria and toward the Iraqi border. For instance, the weapons transports flown in to Damascus International Airport, which Israel has regularly targeted, would instead be sent to the T-4 air base near Palmyra.
Some parts of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force and the Shiite militias it supports also appear to be moving out of Syria and into Iraq. From there they could still threaten Israel with powerful missiles and potentially return to Syria if war breaks out.
While Iran’s focus may be shifting away from southern Syria, it is not abandoning the territory entirely, and indeed its actions there will be more difficult for Israel to counter now that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad controls the area.
When the Syrian Golan was under the control of opposition forces, pro-regime and pro-Iranian forces were less able to operate there freely. Now that Assad is in control of the territory, Shiite militias and Iranian forces are more able to establish military posts along the border with northern Israel.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that the IDF had carried out a tank strike on an Iranian-affiliated position in the Quneitra region in the Syrian Golan.
According to Israeli and Syrian media reports, the shelling was aimed at observation posts that pro-Iranian militias had set up on the border in order to track Israeli military activities.