Overnight clashes show Shiite ‘monster’ in Syria is limited, for now

Overnight clashes show Shiite ‘monster’ in Syria is limited, for now

Israel’s fear is less of continued rocket fire from Syria and more of the potential for confrontation with Lebanon’s Hezbollah

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.

Syrian anti-aircraft missiles rise into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases, in Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018. (Government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)
Syrian anti-aircraft missiles rise into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases, in Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018. (Government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

The broadly unsuccessful Iranian military response overnight Wednesday to alleged Israeli attacks on Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria in recent weeks — themselves a response to Iran’s deepening military presence in Syria, and to its launch of an attack drone into Israel in February — reveals a lot about the present Iranian deployment in Syria.

Despite the impression one might get from some Israeli reports that a real monster in Syria is threatening the very existence of the Jewish state, it emerged that pro-Iranian Shiite forces in Syria are, at this stage, limited in their capacity to attack Israel.

During Iran’s overnight revenge operation, 20 rockets were fired at Israel, of which 16 landed in Syrian territory and the other four were knocked out of the sky by Israeli missile defense systems.

It’s doubtful that this was what the Iranians or the ayatollahs had in mind when they authorized Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’s Quds Force, to respond to what foreign sources have called recent Israeli attacks on Iranian-affiliated targets in Syria.

Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani, looking on as people pay their condolences following the death of his mother in Tehran, September 14, 2013. (AFP/ISNA/Mehdi Ghasemi)

Not only did the operation not achieve anything — there was no damage and there were no injuries on the Israeli side — it gave Israel the pretext for a wide-ranging attack on Iranian targets inside Syria.

According to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, nearly the entire Iranian military infrastructure was attacked overnight. The Israeli army said this infrastructure sustained heavy damage.

What worries Israel, though, is not the attacks launched from Syria but the threat of a broader military confrontation with the much more important Iranian proxy in the region — Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Up until now, the Lebanese Shiite terror organization has avoided being drawn into war with Israel. It is keeping its troops on alert but has not ordered them into action.

As long as Hezbollah in Lebanon remains out of the picture, the exchange of blows in Syria can continue without escalating into war.

The Iranians are in no hurry to use Hezbollah’s troops and rockets and will want to reserve them for more difficult times ahead.

Hezbollah, for its part, does not seem eager to jump into a war when the exit route is not clear.

Supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror movement parade with the party’s flags and portraits of its leader Hassan Nasrallah through the streets of Baalbeck, in the eastern Bekaa valley, near the border with Syria, on general election day, May 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Haitham EL-TABEI)

During the Lebanese parliamentary election campaign of recent weeks, Hezbollah focused on rehabilitating its image as a Lebanese, rather than Iranian-backed, organization, dealing with internal Lebanese problems ranging from drugs to corruption and the problem of garbage removal.

This campaign brought successful results for Hezbollah; the Shiite bloc, together with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, now has a majority in parliament.

While the balance of power in Lebanese politics will not change significantly, the status of Hezbollah as a legitimate organization has been strengthened.

The question is whether it will want to be dragged back into a discussion about its identity and loyalty.

Hezbollah’s entry into a confrontation with Israel in order to avenge Iran would once again raise the question of its image as a “defender of Lebanon” and revive the image of the organization as a branch of the Iranian regime fighting alongside Tehran during its participation in Syria’s civil war.

Make no mistake, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah will continue to carry out whatever Qassem Soleimani asks of him.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a televised speech during a ceremony in Beirut to commemorate Hezbollah leaders who have been killed, February 16, 2018. (AFP Photo/Joseph Eid)

But Hezbollah’s entanglement in war against Israel will not serve Tehran’s goal of expanding Iranian control in the region. On the contrary, it could take Iran’s efforts backwards by many years.

Don’t imagine that the current escalation is already behind us. The Israeli-Iranian struggle in Syria is far from over. Last night’s events were only the first round of what appears to be a particularly long and exhausting fistfight, without a knockout.

The Iranians will continue to entrench themselves in Syria and Israel will again launch alleged attacks on Iranian military targets there. After that, Iran will again try to respond, and last night’s operation will be repeated.

It is only to be hoped that in the next round, the battle’s outcome will also tilt significantly in Israel’s favor.

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