North Africa, West Asia

The increasingly dangerous Israeli-Iranian front in Syria

Israel, Iran and their allies struggle over their interests in the fate of Syria, only adding to the instability in the region.

Roberto Iannuzzi
4 March 2015
Deraa. Demotix/Majid Almustafa. All rights reserved.

Deraa. Demotix/Majid Almustafa. All rights reserved.

On 8 February 2015 Hezbollah, Iranian officers and Syrian forces launched an offensive in the Deraa-Quneitra-Rural Damascus triangle in Syria. Ostensibly, its main goals were to defend the capital, cut off insurgent lines between Deraa and the Golan Heights, and recover ground in Quneitra province. A longer-term objective, however, was to regain control of the border thus opening a new front of ‘resistance’ against Israel.

This, at least, has been stated by several sources close to the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’—Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. These sources accused Israel and Jordan of trying to set up “buffer zones” inside the Syrian border by sustaining rebel groups like the Southern Front alliance, the Salafi Islamic Front, and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

In a speech on January 30, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah claimed that Jabhat al-Nusra, in particular, was allied to Israel. He compared the group to the South Lebanon Army led by Antoine Lahad, which collaborated with Israel during the Lebanese civil war.

Nasrallah’s speech came two days after Hezbollah militiamen killed two Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms, a small strip of land occupied by Israel but claimed by Lebanon. The attack was in retaliation for the 18 January Israeli raid in Quneitra province, in which at least six Hezbollah operatives and an Iranian officer were killed.

Among the Lebanese victims was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, who was a senior Hezbollah commander assassinated by Israel in 2008. As for the Iranian officer, he turned out to be no less than General Mohammed Allahdadi, the person in charge of the Syrian file on behalf of Qasem Soleimani, the renowned commander of the Iranian Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Allahdadi probably was not the first Iranian senior officer to die at Israeli hands during the Syrian civil war. IRGC operatives in Syria were possibly killed by Israel as early as January or February 2013. However, after the Quneitra incident, Israel and the Axis of Resistance increasingly seem to be on a collision course in Syria.

Indeed, as Syria slipped into a bloody civil war with regional and international interferences, the country quickly became a new battleground for Israeli-Iranian rivalry. Tehran chose to protect the Syrian regime at all costs in order to save its Axis of Resistance. On the other hand, many in Israel braced for the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which in turn would have dealt a huge blow to the Iranian enemy, cutting off its territorial connection to Hezbollah.

Starting from early 2013, Israel launched its policy of pre-emptive strikes against Syrian stockpiles of so-called “game-changing” weapons. These were Iranian and Russian-made weapons aimed at shoring up the regime’s defenses against possible foreign military intervention, or at being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Between January 2013 and December 2014, Israeli aircrafts performed at least seven separate sorties against missile warehouses, military complexes and arms shipments around Damascus and Latakia in Syria, and one sortie on Lebanese soil. However, this was purportedly not enough to prevent the transfer of sophisticated anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, in March 2013, the Syrian armed forces began to lose control of the Golan frontier with Israel to various rebel groups. This posed a new challenge to Tel Aviv, which feared that jihadist factions might attempt to strike at Israeli targets, thus ending nearly four decades of calm across the ceasefire line separating Israel and Syria.

In fact, the danger coming from the border was twofold for Tel Aviv: following the third Israeli airstrike against Syrian military installations, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah vowed to turn the Golan Heights into a new “resistance front” against Israel. Between 2013 and 2014, Israel attributed several incidents in the area to militias connected to Hezbollah, without being able to blame Damascus for direct responsibility.

In turn, at least since the second half of 2012, Tel Aviv has quietly established contacts with members of the Syrian opposition abroad. According to unnamed Syrian opposition sources in Jordan, the idea of establishing a buffer zone on the Syrian-Israeli border in collaboration with Tel Aviv emerged during secret meetings in Amman in early 2013.

Israel also established close intelligence cooperation with Jordan, which opened flight corridors to Syria-bound Israeli drones. Amman was already hosting a secret command centre, staffed by western and Arab military officials, from which vetted and trained rebel fighters were receiving weapons and tactical advice.

Israeli officials, however, maintained that Tel Aviv was providing support only to “moderate militias” and residents of villages along the border, and that this assistance was limited to medical care, food, equipment and blankets. Nonetheless, according to other Israeli sources, this cooperation also included intelligence sharing and modest amounts of weapons. And while there was no direct cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra, the group in the Golan was frequently acting in coordination with other rebel groups, including those with ties to Israel.

In December 2014, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) detected several contacts between the Israeli Army and armed rebels on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line, mainly during heavy fighting between rebels and the Syrian armed forces. During the February 2015 offensive by the Axis of Resistance on the Syrian southern front, renewed contacts have been reported, and several wounded rebels have crossed into Israel for medical treatment.

While the true extent of Israeli support for the rebels is unclear, both Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah have repeatedly accused Tel Aviv of acting in coordination with them. Hezbollah also fears that a rebel advance from Quneitra toward the southwestern countryside of Damascus could in turn open a new dangerous front in Lebanon through its southeastern border.

The February offensive, therefore, was also intended as a countermeasure against these threats. The Syrian government openly acknowledged for the first time that the operation was backed by Hezbollah and Iranian officers, and a few thousand Shi’a (Lebanese, Iranian and even Afghan) fighters reportedly joined it.

The leading role assumed by Hezbollah and Iran in the offensive has alarmed both Israel and Jordan. Amman fears the emergence of a “sectarian hotbed” across its northern border, which could spur the Jordanian Jihadi-Salafi current into action, putting it outside the control of the government.

Israel, in turn, may deem “unavoidable” a new campaign against Hezbollah sometime in the future. Moreover, the spectre of a “coordinated” front between Palestinian factions and the Iranian axis is raising tensions in Tel Aviv. Despite ongoing disagreements between Teheran and Hamas, Iran’s military support for the Palestinian movement was still evident last summer, during Israel’s 50-day war on Gaza. After this conflict, Iranian officials increasingly threatened to arm the West Bank as they previously did with Gaza.

On the Syrian southern front, the offensive led by the Axis of Resistance still has a long way to go before it reaches the border, despite some initial gains. However, its eventual takeover of the Golan Heights on the one hand, and of the area bordering with Jordan on the other, would possibly entail a conflict spill-over into both Israel and Jordan, with unpredictable consequences for the already shattered regional stability.

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