Iran, facing off against Israel in Syria, now sending arms directly to Lebanon

Israel’s alleged airstrike in Syria overnight was a rare exception to the new Russian-imposed rules; Tehran is shifting its tactics, as well

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.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, speaks with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, right, after a group photo at a conference 'Supporting the future of Syria and the region' at the Europa building in Brussels on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, speaks with Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, right, after a group photo at a conference 'Supporting the future of Syria and the region' at the Europa building in Brussels on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

Airstrikes in southern Syria on Thursday attributed to Israel were not necessarily indicative of the renewal of what were once routine Israeli attacks on Syrian territory, but rather a likely exception to the new rules imposed by Russia on the region.

Israel has almost completely halted these strikes over the last two-and-a-half months, since Syrian anti-aircraft fire — responding to an Israeli strike in Latakia — accidentally shot down a Russian reconnaissance plane, killing all 15 servicemen aboard in an incident Moscow has blamed on the Israeli military.

Since then, it turns out a number of things have happened simultaneously.

First, Russia sent a clear message to Israel regarding its anger over the strikes on Iranian-linked targets, including by dispatching S-300 aerial defense systems to Syria to complicate further such strikes.

In this illustrative photo taken on August 27, 2013, a Russian S-300 air defense system is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, Russia (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

Israel appeared to take the hint, with the number of airstrikes dropping considerably.

If Israel was in fact behind the extensive attack in Syria late on Thursday, it can be assumed the target of the strikes posed a clear-cut threat to Israel and that additionally, crucially, the existence of these targets in Syrian territory was not to the satisfaction of the Russians either.

Direct shipment

Second, it also appears that since the September incident over Latakia there has been a shift in Iran’s modus operandi. As Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, the head of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, told Radio 103FM on Thursday: Iran changed tactics.

In this June 9, 2018 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a meeting in Qingdao, China. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File)

Rather than seeking to take control of Syria militarily and economically, Iran has switched its attention to two other arenas — Lebanon and Iraq.

This new focus includes turning Lebanon into a de facto Iranian province, using a variety of political, economic and military measures.

While this does not mean Iran is abandoning Syria, as the imperative for Thursday’s strikes underlined, the country is no longer a critical waypoint for the transfer of advanced weapons systems to Hezbollah. Arms can instead be shipped, and are being shipped, directly.

In the past few days, there have been numerous reports of Iranian planes affiliated with the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps landing at Beirut’s airport with modern weaponry, possibly the same type Israel has tried to prevent from entering Lebanon by attacking weapons convoys in Syria.

Illustrative image of a Fars Air Qeshm cargo plane (Wikimedia Commons)

Evidently Iran has found a more effective method — a simple channel designed to strengthen Hezbollah and the Shiite terror group’s presence in Lebanon.

Rather than sending weapons bound for Hezbollah through Syria and risking a clash with Israel and tension with Russia, Tehran delivers them directly to Lebanon.

In Iraq things are even easier — weapons and fighters can be transferred directly by land to the Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq.

This change in Iran’s operating pattern comes first and foremost, as noted above, because of Russia’s stance. Though Moscow did not approve of the Israeli strikes, neither did it approve of Iran’s efforts to take over Syria.

The message appears to have been heard in Tehran, with more of Iran’s efforts now focused on Lebanon, presenting further headaches for Israel.

Guns and influence

In Lebanon, furthermore, a substantial change has taken place concerning Hezbollah’s presence and dominance.

Hezbollah has been more or less the landlord in Lebanon since the early 1990s, following the Taif Agreement ending the country’s 15-year-long civil war and requiring all political groups to disarm… except Hezbollah.

Still, Iran seems to have made further significant moves over the past year with an eye toward taking over not only Lebanon’s military dimensions, but also its government.

The Ministry of Public Health, for instance, is headed by a doctor tied to Hezbollah. There is also Abbas Ibrahim, the head of General Security Directorate — one of Lebanon’s most important intelligence agencies, who is considered a Hezbollah appointee.

Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, is considered a member of the March 8 Alliance, which is led by the Shiite group.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, left, meets with Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, May 24, 2018. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Government via AP)

Such is the case, too, with the chief of staff of the Lebanese Armed Forces and many others.

An investigation by Western and Arab intelligence agencies published in an Emirati newspaper last week revealed that Hezbollah’s “Unit 900,” known as the “security unit” within the terror group, has successfully recruited and planted dozens of moles in official Lebanese government institutions, including the director generals of government ministries, the head of economic bodies and senior commanders in the military.

According to the report, these same agents are transferring sensitive information to Hezbollah, allowing it to do as it likes in the country.

In this photo from April 13, 2018, supporters of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah hold a banner with his portrait and Arabic words that read: ‘All the loyalty to the man of nobility.’ (AP /Hussein Malla)

Iran’s efforts are also reflected in Lebanon’s fractious politics, with no government in place since national elections in May.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri has tried unsuccessfully to cobble together a government and when asked to explain the delay in appointing a new cabinet, he immediately blamed Hezbollah.

The Shiite organization is apparently insisting on a ministerial appointment for one of six Sunni members of parliament considered allies, a move opposed by Hariri, himself a Sunni.

While Lebanon may have celebrated 75 years of independence a week ago, Iran’s takeover activities are making a mockery of any notion of Lebanese independence. Seeking to prevent Iran establishing itself in Syria, Israel now needs to be watching Lebanon ever more warily as well.

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