If Iran Succeeds in Leaving Forces in Syria, Hezbollah Will Be Major Threat Against Israel

[junkie-dropcap]T[/junkie-dropcap]he indefinite military presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria creates a significant future threat to Israel. This presence helps create territorial contiguity as a base for Iranian actions and in uence from Iran to Syria and Lebanon, enabling Iran to move forces and weapons along this route. It forms a foundation for attacks on Israel in the future whenever Iran sees t, especially via Hezbollah and Shiite militias, and along an even longer front, from Lebanon to the Golan Heights. The idea of a broad front is not new to Iran and Hezbollah, and for many years they have worked to set this infrastructure in place via the Quds Force. But in a situation in which Iranian-af liated forces are stationed in Syria for the long term, and when Hezbollah can readily receive higher quality arms than ever before – through the territorial corridor and from weapons factories in Syria and Lebanon – Iran can heighten the severity of its threat against Israel.

At the same time, given the weaknesses inherent in Iran’s involvement in Syria, it is more likely that at least for now, Iran does not want to provoke Israel and confront it on the battle eld. At this time, its main regional interest lies in stabilizing the Syrian and Iraqi regimes and expanding its influence over them. A conflict with Israel might harm Iran more than Israel, would divert its attention from its major regional objective, and might put it on a dangerous collision course with the United States. Therefore, at present, the
main purpose of Iranian involvement in Syrian and Lebanon in the Israeli context is presumably to improve Iran’s deterrence vis-à-vis Israel, especially by strengthening the Shiite militias in Syria, in particular Hezbollah, rather than reach a military confrontation with Israel. This assumption is supported by the fact that since 2015, Hezbollah has avoided provoking Israel.

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There is no guarantee that Iran will succeed in leaving a signi cant presence in Syria indefinitely comprising the Revolutionary Guards forces and Shiite militias, especially on the Golan Heights. If the situation in Syria stabilizes, it may be that a settlement will demand that foreign forces evacuate Syria, and in a state approaching the end of fighting and relative calm, the Assad regime may want them to leave. But even then, the existence of a land corridor from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon will make it possible for Iran to transport forces and weapons to Hezbollah.

On the other hand, if Iran succeeds in leaving forces in Syria, it is obvious that of all the Shiite militias – which will in all probability be the core among the foreign forces in Syria – Hezbollah will constitute the major threat against Israel: it is the best militia and the one most closely associated with Iran; it has much experience in ghting Israel; it knows the area better than the other militias; and, above all, it possesses a large rocket arsenal, allowing it to represent a real challenge to Israel.

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The very fact of proximity between Israeli and Iranian military forces offers Israel new possibilities for attacking Iranian targets, should it become necessary, such as disrupting the use of the corridor. At the same time, this proximity of Iranian forces, or Hezbollah and the militias, increases the risk of a confrontation with Israel, either a proactive or unplanned clash resulting from deterioration on the ground. It is therefore necessary to consider that even if Iran and Hezbollah have usually avoided responding to IDF attacks, there is no guarantee they will be similarly restrained in the future.

The fact that Trump adopted harsh words and a threatening attitude toward Iran, both on the nuclear question and on Iran’s regional conduct, but has not yet formulated ways to curb Iran’s influence in other countries is a problem.

Iran and Hezbollah did not make a military move against Israel after the aerial attack on an Iranian military base near Damascus in early December 2017. The attack was attributed to Israel as a message to Iran not to cross the red line of placing Iranian/Shiite forces near the Israeli border. Yet the more the IDF engages in such attacks, the more Iran and Hezbollah will want to respond to deter Israel from continuing the practice. Therefore, at a certain point Hezbollah, with Iranian backing, might respond with countermoves.

Over the years, and especially after the Second Lebanon War, Israel managed to create fairly credible deterrence vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Now Israel will have to strengthen this deterrence, as several factors could tilt the balance in Hezbollah’s favor: Hezbollah ghters in Syria; Iranian forces and other Shiite militias in Syria with important ghting experience, which might boost Hezbollah’s self-con dence and prompt it to respond to Israeli attacks; and Iran’s improving ability to transport rapidly high quality arms manufactured in the weapons factories it has built in Syria and in Iran via the land corridor from Iraq.

Several steps beyond those taken to date may strengthen Israel’s deterrence: an unambiguous clari cation of Israel’s red lines on activities by Hezbollah and the other forces associated with Iran; disruption of movement through the corridor; continued attacks on arms convoys and weapons factories without assuming responsibility for them; and US military action against Shiite militia targets should the Trump administration conclude this is needed to strengthen its credibility.

The possibility that Iranian and Shiite forces will stay in Syria inde nitely, and move into or near the Golan Heights, requires discussion and cooperation with the US administration. The fact that Trump adopted harsh words and a threatening attitude toward Iran, both on the nuclear question and on Iran’s regional conduct, but has not yet formulated ways to curb Iran’s influence in other countries is a problem. The lack of a response by the administration to Russia’s support for Iran’s intervention in Syria – perhaps stemming from the administration’s desire for a closer US-Russia partnership – does not help deter Iran. Under such conditions, the Trump administration is to a large extent abandoning the Syrian arena to Russia and Iran, and the passivity shown by the United States is not offset by any regional element willing or able to stop Iran’s penetration into Syria.

For precisely this reason, a credible clarifoication from the administration that it will take harsher steps against Iran and Hezbollah if they continue to challenge the United States and its allies is needed. The Trump administration could take several steps to stop a long term Iranian penetration of Syria. In negotiations over Syria’s future, the administration can hold talks with Russia and Turkey on withdrawing foreign forces from Syria according to a well de ned timetable as part of a comprehensive settlement, as determined by the November 2017 agreement.

Turkey has already expressed its support for such a step, and Russia too might favor it, perhaps in exchange for some US gesture. The administration can impose further sanctions on Iran for its military intervention in Syria, and can consider taking limited military action to impede Iran’s use of the land corridor to transport troops and arms.

 
 

This article was excerpted from the article published in INSS Strategic Assessment.

Dr.Ephraim Kam is a senior research fellow at INSS. The author would like to thank Lt. Gen. (ret.) Moshe Ya’alon, former Defense Minister and IDF chief of staff, currently a senior research fellow at INSS, for his valuable comments on this essay.