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Israel’s Gray Zone: Iran in Syria

The IDF has been walking a tightrope in Syria, taking direct action against major security threats while trying to avoid a full-scale war. Can this gray zone strategy succeed in pushing Iran out of Syria or not?

Illustrative: An Israel Air Force F-16 takes off. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
Illustrative: An Israel Air Force F-16 takes off. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

Since 2015, Iranian forces have increasingly entrenched themselves in Syria as part of a broader effort to bolster the rule of Bashar al-Assad. As this effort began to unfold, Israel feared reenacting the cautionary tale of Hezbollah in Lebanon, where indecision over rooting out the Tehran-backed terrorist group proved to be a decision in itself.

To avoid a situation in which Iranian or proxy forces are positioned along the entirety of Israel’s northern border, the IDF has been walking a tightrope in Syria, taking direct action against major security threats while trying to avoid a full-scale war. Can this gray zone strategy succeed in pushing Iran out of Syria or not?

To discuss this regional decision point, David Makovsky hosts distinguished guests James Jeffrey, Assaf Orion, and Oula Alrifai.

Ambassador Jeffrey served as the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement and special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS until November 2020. He currently chairs the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program.

General Orion is a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies and the Rueven International Fellow with The Washington Institute. Previously, he served as head of the Strategic Division in the IDF General Staff’s Planning Directorate.

Alrifai, a native of Syria, is a fellow in The Washington Institute’s Program on Arab Politics, author of its recent study “In the Service of Ideology: Iran’s Religious and Socioeconomic Activities in Syria,” and executive producer of the award-winning documentary “Tomorrow’s Children.”

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“Decision Points” is a Washington Institute podcast on key moments in Israel’s history and present. The first season focused on the history of U.S. Israel relations and the second season focused on key Israeli and Arab leaders. The third season focuses on Israel’s toughest contemporary policy dilemmas.

The host, David Makovsky, is the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow in The Washington Institute’s Irwin Levy Family Program on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Relationship and director of the Koret Project on Arab-Israel Relations. He is a former senior advisor to the U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations, as well as a sought-after expert in U.S.-Israel diplomatic relations and territorial solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Guests include Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S.; Natan Sharansky, a human rights activist and former Israeli government minister; David Petraeus, former CIA Director; and Tzipi Livni, former Israeli Foreign Minister.

The podcast is both a history lesson and an exploration of contemporary policy decisions impacting Israel, the United States, and the Middle East at large.

Subscribe to “Decision Points” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or wherever you listen.

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