A significant uptick in Israeli action against Iranian targets in Syria has taken place in recent weeks, according to regional and international media.
In the latest moves, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that 14 Iranian and Iraqi fighters were killed on Tuesday in an Israeli raid on positions close to the town of al-Mayadin, in southeast Syria. This report followed close behind claims in official Syrian media of an Israeli missile attack on a research center and a military barracks in Aleppo province on Monday. SOHR also identified Israel as responsible for explosions at an ammunition depot controlled by the Lebanese Hezbollah movement near Homs city in the west of the country on the same day.
The previous week, strikes took place against militia targets in Quneitra, close to the border with the Golan, and against Iranian targets close to Damascus and to Palmyra, in southwest Syria.
While Israeli spokesmen tend to avoid commenting on specific actions, the overall goal of the campaign has been made crystal clear by a number of officials. The stated Israeli intention is, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it back in June 2018: "Iran needs to leave Syria – all of Syria." More recently, this objective has been reiterated by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett. In an interview on Monday, he said that "Iran has nothing to do in Syria... and we won't stop before they leave Syria."
The apparent increase in Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria has happened on Bennett's watch. The defense minister seems to have identified the expulsion of Iran from Syria as a clear and achievable goal. In February, he told The Jerusalem Post that his objective was to remove Iran from Syria within 12 months.
Bennett has also made clear his calculus as to why he is confident that Israel will succeed in achieving this goal – namely, that while for Israel the issue is a cardinal security interest, for Iran, Syria is only of secondary importance.
As a result, the defense minister appears confident that Israel will, by use of its air power, be able to raise the price for the Iranian project in Syria to a level that the Iranians will no longer be willing to pay. Once this point is reached, Iran will recalculate and withdraw.
Bennett: "For Iran, Syria is an adventure 1,000 miles from home, but for us it is life."
As he expressed it this week, "We are determined, more determined, and I will tell you why: For Iran, Syria is an adventure 1,000 miles from home, but for us it is life."
In recent days, a variety of media outlets have quoted unnamed Israeli officials identifying evidence that this strategy is bearing fruit, and that Iran has begun to reduce its presence in Syria as a result of the Israeli raids. As one unnamed source told the Walla website, '"For the first time since Iran entered Syria, it is reducing its forces there and evacuating bases."
SO IS the strategy working? Have the Israeli raids begun to precipitate an Iranian withdrawal from Syria?
The situation is somewhat more complicated.
Firstly, the long Israeli campaign against Iranian attempts to consolidate in Syria has clearly been partially successful. This may be discerned by the absence in Syria of the kind of missile and rocket infrastructure with which Tehran has managed to equip its Hezbollah franchise in Lebanon. Israel's superior air power, extensive intelligence coverage, and willingness to act boldly against Iranian efforts over the last half decade have ensured this. The Iranian desire to construct in Syria a situation analogous to that in Lebanon, where de facto mutual deterrence exists between Israel and the Iran-aligned forces, is clear and discernible. Israel has prevented this.
Secondly, the Iranian regional project is today in considerable difficulty. US sanctions have sharply reduced the amount of money available for regional goals. The assassination of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani has clearly left a large void which has not yet been filled. All indications suggest that neither the new Quds Force chief, Esmail Ghani, nor his deputy Mohamed Hejazi have yet managed to return the running of Iran's complex network of allies in the region to a similar level of effectiveness to that which pertained under Soleimani.
Iranian efforts to construct in Syria a situation analogous to that in Lebanon have failed.
Thirdly, there is evidence to suggest that elements close to the Assad regime are wearying of the Iranian presence. The civil war in Syria is effectively over. There is no military threat to the Assad regime's existence. Assad's main objectives today are the return of Syria to his exclusive authority, its reconstruction, and its return from diplomatic isolation (he is very far from achieving any of these).
The extensive Iranian presence in Syria stands in the way of all these goals. As one source close to Syrian government circles expressed it to this author recently, "They're sick and tired of the Iranians."
With all this said, however, there is reason for considerable skepticism.
Regarding the statements by officials, it is simply not accurate that "for the first time since it entered Syria," Iran is now reducing its presence. The Iranian conventional presence on the ground in Syria has been in a process of reduction since 2018. This is because most major combat operations in Syria concluded in that year. This fact is not controversial, and indeed the IDF's own website notes it.
The Iranian presence in Syria is deep and multifaceted.
But in accordance with the methodology of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Iranian presence in Syria is deep and multifaceted.
It includes the creation of proxy forces within the official Syrian security forces – such as the National Defense Forces and the Local Defense Forces. It includes the non-Syrian proxy militias, from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is the direct presence of IRGC and Quds Force personnel. There are homegrown, locally recruited "Syrian Hezbollah" type formations, such as Battalion 313, Quwat al-Ridha and others. There are also hybrid-type arrangements, whereby IRGC/Hezbollah positions are located within official Syrian Arab Army facilities. The facility outside al-Hadr, adjoining the Israeli border, is an example of these. It is used mainly as an intelligence-gathering and eavesdropping post. It is protected by a Hezbollah-associated force called the Quneitra Hawks Brigade. It is located within a position of the Syrian Army's 90th Brigade.
All this together constitutes a local Syrian adaptation of the IRGC methodology applied also in Lebanon and in Iraq. It has resulted in an existing contiguous area of Iranian control stretching from the Albukamal border crossing to just east of Quneitra, with facilities elsewhere in the country, for the most part woven into the fabric of the Assad regime's own structures.
Iran's infrastructure in Syria constitutes a central, not a peripheral, interest to its regime.
This infrastructure, and Syria more generally, from the Iranian point of view, constitutes a central, not a peripheral interest. Without it, Iran would lose a vital access route to its franchise in Lebanon, to the Mediterranean Sea and to the borders of Israel.
The nature of this project is such that large parts of it are not vulnerable to Israeli air power, unless Israel wants to also take on the Assad regime, which it does not. The parts that are, and that constitute the most direct threat, have been hit hard and well, and will no doubt continue to be so. Put these two points together, and what you have is something resembling the situation in Gaza writ large – namely, a reality in which Israel strikes periodically at its enemies at little cost to itself, and in so doing disrupts and sets back their plans, without delivering a fatal blow.
At the current price that Israel is imposing, it is difficult to see why Iran should choose to up sticks and pull everything back to Tehran. Of course, the defense minister is privy to information regarding Syria that this author is not. But if an Iranian strategic withdrawal from Syria takes place before next February, it will be visible to all. So we will know.
As of now, there appears to be a discrepancy between the stated goal and the means being employed to achieve it. This discrepancy renders Israeli strategy incoherent.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and is a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Security and Strategy.