Israel’s War of Attrition Weakens Iranian Presence in Syria

Israel’s war of attrition against the Iranian presence in Syria has undermined the ability of Tehran’s proxies to engage in cross-border conflict. This is a key aim for Israel, as it believes these militias pose a direct threat to its northern border, and to Tel Aviv, which is within missile range of pro-Iran forces, especially given Hezbollah’s status as an extension of the ideology of the Supreme Leadership in Tehran (Wali al-Faqih). With its missile arsenal, Iran’s presence in Syria facilitates the supply of missiles to its proxy force in southern Lebanon.

With its action against the Iranian presence in Syria, Tel Aviv also seeks to demonstrate its military supremacy in the region, and its ability to deter and launch preventive strikes against any threat to its security. Israel’s military involvement in the conflict began shortly after the armed uprising in Syria, which saw Syrian regime forces and militias loyal to them fight armed opposition factions seeking regime change. Iran became involved in the conflict at an early stage, and has sent thousands of sectarian militia members into the country since 2011. Some of these militias included Iranian citizens, while others were brought from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq to join forces with the Lebanese Hezbollah militias in Syria. Together, they form a patchwork of insurgents largely beyond the control of Tehran that do not abide by rules of engagement or international laws regarding conflict. This has fueled the civil war, transforming it from a political conflict into a sectarian one, raising concerns in neighboring countries, including Israel.

Israel alleges that the true purpose behind Iranian intervention in Syria is not to support the Syrian regime, as claimed, but to expand its influence in the region and complete the so-called ‘Shiite Crescent’ within the Arab Mashriq, surrounding it from Iran in the east, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon in the west. Tel Aviv sees this as a  threat to its existence, because it would leave Israel vulnerable on all sides to pro-Iran militias, severely undermining its ability to defend its territory in the event of a new regional war.

Since 2011, Israel has launched hundreds of raids on sites within Syrian territory, mostly targeting Syrian army barracks that harbor militias affiliated with or linked to Iran and Hezbollah, or that serve as weapons and ammunition depots controlled by those militias. The depots are routinely used to smuggle arms into neighboring Lebanon, undermining security at Israel’s northern border.

In managing this conflict, Tel Aviv has focused on propaganda and psychological warfare, in addition to military intervention. It has sent a clear message to Iran and its allies that it will not tolerate any concentration of Iranian forces or militias near its northern borders, and that it will destroy any target it believes to contain Iranian affiliates or ammunition. Israel has also made it clear to the international community that its actions are justified as legitimate self-defense.

It is clear then, that Israel seeks to take advantage of Iran’s current weaknesses, tightening the screws on it as much as possible and perpetuating its international isolation resulting from Iran’s regional and international policies, particularly its interference in the affairs of other countries. Israel also seeks to exploit Iran’s deteriorating domestic situation. Tehran faces economic decline and has shown poor understanding and management of the regional security agenda, which has resulted in frequent street protests and general public dissent. Israel has taken advantage of this, evident in its intensified strikes on Iranian militia sites in Syria, with more than 200 sorties in 2019 alone.

Israel’s goal of ending or severely curtailing Iran’s presence in Syria is not unattainable, especially as this has been accepted by Russia, the most influential actor in the country. Russia does not allow indiscriminate Israeli operations in Syrian airspace, but actively coordinates military activities with Tel Aviv, either overtly or covertly. This reveals a clear Russian desire to limit the influence of Tehran and its militias, which have become weaker, more fragmented and more chaotic following the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Quds Force.