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Israel’s Endgame for Syria; Too Late for Regime Change but the Iranian Military Presence Must be Uprooted

May 15th - 2018

With the Ba’athist government of Syria standing as Israel’s oldest adversary in the Middle East, a state with which Israeli forces have engaged on numerous occasions from the 1973 Yom Kippur War to regular skirmishes in the air today, the outbreak of an internal conflict in the country served as an excellent opportunity for Tel Aviv to be rid of one of the greatest obstacles to its regional ambitions. Syria’s support for the Hezbollah militia, a heavily armed Iranian aligned group operating in southern Lebanon which in 2006 dealt the Israeli military the only defeat in its history, further incentivised Tel Aviv to look favourably on any regime change efforts against Damascus. When Islamist insurgents operating with the full support of the Western bloc, and funded generously by a number of Western aligned Arab states including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others, threatened to destroy the Syrian government from within without shedding a drop of Israeli blood, Tel Aviv appeared poised to benefit greatly. Israel’s own armed forces would have struggled to achieve such a feat themselves, due to the strength of Syria’s large conventional forces - boasting large tank divisions, one of the region’s foremost anti aircraft missile networks, ballistic missiles and chemical weapons which would make such an operation extremely costly. Regime change in Syria by the West, waging a war by proxy with extensive Arab support via a number of Islamist groups, thus appeared a highly favourable outcome for Israel.

As of 2018, prospects for the Syrian government’s downfall appear slim. While Islamist insurgent groups, namely Al Qaeda and Islamic State, had acquired vast caches of Western made arms and a constant supply of recruits from around the world transiting primarily through Turkey, and by the end of 2015 control the vast majority of Syrian territory, they never succeeded in capturing Damascus. Intervention by a number of Syrian allies, including Hezbollah, Iran, North Korea and Russia, prevented this outcome, with Russian forces mounting a large campaign by air and sea to neutralise Islamist targets across the country from September 2015. Russia’s presence was key to deterring direct Western intervention against Syria to topple its government when attempts by proxy failed, and the United States and France had come close to initiating in 2013. Within two years of the Russian intervention the efforts of Damascus and its allies had brought the vast majority of the country back under government control.

As of 2018, Israel has escalated its interventions in the Syrian conflict, carrying out increasingly frequent airstrikes on Syrian government forces and their Iranian and Hezbollah partners. With Iran being Tel Aviv’s primary regional adversary, a state which has threatened Israel’s very existence in the past and was key to facilitating Hezbollahs’ victory in 2006, an entrenched Iranian military presence in Syria remains unacceptable for Tel Aviv. While Israel today is well beyond its means to bring about regime change in Iran or Syria, a feat which even the military might of the Western bloc may well struggle to achieve, Tel Aviv has sought to ensure that the power vacuum in Syria does not lead to a permanent presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian aligned militias such as Hezbollah on its borders.

As Iranian forces in Syria continue to grow in strength, deploying anti aircraft missile systems, stealth drones and other formidable assets, Israel has been forced to act sooner rather than later to neutralise these contingents before they grow too large and too well equipped to deal with. The Israeli Air Force's strikes on Syrian territory have targeted what Tel Aviv claims are Iranian military facilities in the country. While Syria’s Air Defence Force has in most cases shielded its territory from the brunt of Israeli missile attacks, they have nevertheless caused a great deal of damage - with one strike in particular launched by disguised F-15I strike fighters from Syria’s Eastern border in late April devastating positions of what Tel Aviv alleged were Iranian forces.

Ultimately Israel’s goal today is the removal of Iranian forces in Syria, a far more obtainable objective than total victory against either Damascus or Tehran which has more immediate consequences for Israeli security. Israeli security cabinet member Minister Yoav Galant stated regarding this objective and Tel Aviv’s plans to pursue it in full: “An opportunity has arisen for Israel to uproot Iran from Syria, and we’ll take advantage of this opportunity. We need to strike while the iron is hot and eradicate any trace of Iranian entrenchment in Syria. We’ll put the Iranian genie back in its bottle.” Iran for its part has denied maintaining a military presence in Syria, though evidence indicates that at the very least Iranian aligned militias operating under Iranian military advisors are present in the country.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has emphasised the importance of taking military action against Iran if necessary, he most likely referred to the removal of forces stationed in Syria - not an all out war with Tehran which the small state would be hard pressed to win without deploying its nuclear arsenal. The Prime Minister had stated: "We are determined to stop Iran's aggression in its early stages, even if it this involves a conflict… Better now than later. Nations that were unprepared to take timely action against murderous aggression paid much heavier prices afterwards. We do not want escalation, but we are prepared for any scenario." Iran's ever growing arsenal of thousands of ballistic missiles, an asset which the Western bloc has made numerous attempts to strip from Tehran, means that in the event Israeli military action retaliation against the country's population centres would be devastating. While Iranian airspace remains heavily defended and well beyond the range of the vast majority of the Israeli air fleet, and Israel is highly unlikely to initiate a total war due to Tehran's vast conventional and missile forces, a swift and decisive military campaign against Iranian forces in Syria remains likely. Whether these forces will be able to prevail in such a situation, deploying their own air defence systems and potentially relying on underground fortifications to better withstand Israeli airstrikes, remains to be seen. The balance of power between the two longstanding regional adversaries is likely to be determined by the result. 

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