Skip to main content

The Israelis tried to cut their losses in Syria. They failed

They hoped Assad would fall. Then they wished Syria would fall apart, taking Hezbollah with it. Despite recent efforts, the Israelis may now find themselves staring down the group on two fronts

As Iran consolidates its presence and influence in Syria, Israel fears that its "Syrian policy" is collapsing. To cut its losses, the Jewish state has embarked on a new and urgent diplomatic-intelligence initiative spearheaded by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disrupted Russian President Vladimir Putin's summer holiday and flew to Sochi. He was accompanied by Cohen.

According to well-informed Israeli sources, Israeli diplomatic efforts in Russia and Washington over the past week have failed

Last week, Cohen led a senior intelligence delegation, which included the chief of Israeli military intelligence Major-General Hertzi Halevi, to Washington for meetings with their counterparts.

In both meetings, the Israelis urged the Americans and Russians to put an immediate stop the deployment of Iranian, Lebanese Hezbollah and their Shia militias from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq near the Israeli border on the Golan and ask them leave Syria later on.

But according to well-informed Israeli sources, the missions failed. The Trump administration has decided to abandon its involvement in Syria once the Islamic State (IS) group is defeated, which will most probably happen in a matter of a few months.

Trump’s three messages

During the election campaign, Donald Trump emphasised an "America First" theme. He rejected any interventionist policy to address human rights issues or to help build democracy.

Eliminating IS in Iraq and Syria, in his mind, is solely a military action and will be followed quickly by a withdrawal. Trump doesn’t want the US to get deeply involved in Syria after IS loses its territories, a policy which has support among the American public.

The US departure means a further consolidation of Russian influence in Syria – and even more security for Assad

Indeed, a month before he announced its end, Trump reportedly decided in June to end the CIA’s covert programme to train and arm moderate pro-Western rebels fighting against the Assad regime, a move long sought by Russia.

His decision reversed the Obama administration’s policy initiated in 2013. The programme was meant to pressurise the Syrian regime and force Assad to step down, but it was inconsistent, too slow and too small, and failed to produce results. Now, US military involvement in Syria will be confined to air strikes against IS targets alone.

By ending the CIA programme, the US sends three simultaneous messages. First, in contrast to the impression it gave just three months ago when it launched air strikes against Assad’s air base and forces in retaliation for the regime’s use of chemical weapons, America no longer seeks to topple Assad.

Trump and Putin hold a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Germany in July (AFP)
The second message is that after IS lost the Iraqi city of Mosul, the US is convinced that the war against IS is in its final stages, even though the group still controls parts of its “capital”, the Syrian city of Raqqa.

The third message of the Trump administration is that it has agreed that Syria is and will be in Russia’s sphere of influence. Trump and Putin discussed and agreed to the ceasefire on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting in Munich in early July. 

The US departure means a further consolidation of Russian influence in Syria – and even more security for Assad. No wonder that this week the Syrian president thanked his allies – Iran, Hezbollah and Russia – for helping him to regain control.

Israeli demands – and its real concerns

As far as Israel is concerned, the most blatant sign of the new reality which is emerging was the 9 July ceasefire agreement brokered by the US, Russia and Jordan. The deal has created safe zones or, to be more precise, “reduced violence areas”, along Israeli, Syrian and Jordanian borders.

The major outcome of the talks is that Russia has been appointed to supervise the ceasefire and enforce it among all the involved parties: the Syrian army, its Iranian and Hezbollah allies and the dozens of rebel groups that fight both the Syrian regime and each other.  

Israel did not take direct part in the talks, but conveyed its concerns, demands and red lines through various back channels.

We cannot expect Russia to act strongly against Iran in Syria - and we can assume, therefore, that Russia will not succumb to Israel’s request to restrain Iran

Israel’s major demand was that neither Hezbollah fighters, nor Iranian troops, nor their Shia mercenaries, who are deeply involved in the fighting in Syria in support of Assad’s regime, would have a presence in the safe zones near the country’s border.

Israeli military sources admitted to me that their demands were ignored. There are already at least 300 Hezbollah troops on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights hosted on Syrian army bases no more than 5km from the Israeli border.

This is an insignificant force, but a symbolic one and a hint of the shape of things to come. Israel isn’t even all that worried about the 20,000-strong Shia militias in Syria. They are poorly trained and equipped and serve as Iran's cannon folder in the battlefields.

Israeli concerns are different. A secret Israeli intelligence report that was recently leaked estimates that Russia needs a bigger and stronger Iranian presence in Syria to finish off IS’s control in the east, leading to Iraq. 

Russia has never denounced Iran's military support of Hezbollah in public and there is no reason to think that it would do so now. Moreover, even if Russia did privately complain about it, Russian influence and leverage with respect to Iran’s relations with Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias is very limited.

So far, Israeli pleas and demands - including those made in the recent meetings in Sochi and Washington - have fallen on deaf ears. Contrary to the impression given by Netanyahu and Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman that their long courtship of Putin is paying off and that Israel and Russia are on the same page, the reality in the field is completely different.

We cannot expect Russia to act strongly against Iran in Syria - and we can assume, therefore, that Russia will not succumb to Israel’s request to restrain Iran, but will instead encourage Iran to increase its presence.

The Israeli intelligence estimate says that in order to accomplish its mission, it is likely that Iran will need more professional troops, even beyond those fighting in Hezbollah and the Shia militias. As a result, Israeli sources predict that soon Iran will send well-trained and equipped IRGC troops to Syria in addition to 1,000 advisers which are attached to the Syria army and the Shia militias. 

Fighting Hezbollah on two fronts

Since the start of the war, Israeli strategy in Syria has basically been tactical. All it wanted was to stall and take advantage of the civil war while maintaining peace and tranquillity on its Syria border.

At first, Israel hoped that the Assad regime would fall. Then, it just wished that Syria would fall apart and Hezbollah would spill its blood there. And indeed for a couple of years, this policy worked.

Hezbollah lost nearly 2,000 of its best troops there and, taking advantage of the chaos of the war, the Israeli Air Force carried out nearly 100 attacks against shipments of sophisticated precise long-range missiles from Iran through Syria. Israel avoided claiming responsibility for the attacks until last week when the outgoing chief of air force General Amir Eshel admitted it.

After Arsal: Hezbollah's new triangle of influence
Mona Alami
Read More »

But now it is becoming clear that Israel’s aims in Syria are not going to be accomplished. Assad will stay in power, Iran will increase its presence, Hezbollah will emerge stronger and, despite the Israeli air force sorties, the group’s missile arsenal is probably bigger with more accurate weaponry. 

Not that a war is looming on the horizon. However, Iran's deepened influence in Syria is potentially volatile in the future, increasing the risk that if the 11-year truce and quiet along the Israeli-Lebanese border is broken, the Israeli military may find itself fighting Hezbollah on two fronts. 

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security and intelligence commentator and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A soldier from an Israeli Army Artillery unit stands on a tank deployed in the Israeli occupied Golan Heights, on 6 March 2014. (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.