Assessing Israel’s ongoing campaign against Iran in Syria

by  June 2023

Since 2013  – and more intensely since 2017 – Israel has been conducting an active military and intelligence campaign against Iran’s presence in Syria, in addition to the ongoing operations against Iran’s nuclear effort. Doubts have been raised as to the long-term ability of this strategy to prevent Iran from sustaining and extending its grip on Syria (as Ehud Yaari argues on these pages).

The Israeli defense establishment assesses, on the other hand, that its pressure on Iran’s presence in Syria is effective. In addition, Israel believes the combination of sabotage, sanctions, international economic pressure, deterrence, and (as some Israelis reluctantly or tacitly admit) American diplomacy has kept the Iranian nuclear project at bay for decades.

Still, Israel’s strategy may soon face a decisive moment because Iran’s uranium enrichment project has now put the regime in Tehran (according to official US military assessments, as presented in Congressional hearings) within weeks of stockpiling enough weapon grade fissile material for a nuclear device.

In Syria, Israeli military leaders began warning in May 2023 that Iran’s efforts  – and a possible miscalculation by Hizbullah – could lead to escalation. Given Iran’s overt commitment to Israel’s destruction, the ongoing attacks on Iranian targets – in both Syria and Iran – are regarded by most Israelis as self-defense against an active enemy, and continue to be supported by the key opposition parties as well as by the government.

Israel’s campaign includes airstrikes in Syrian territory and occasionally in northern Iraq, cyber attacks on Iranian infrastructure, low-intensity naval warfare –  including operations by Israeli special forces against Iranian ships carrying oil or weapons to Lebanon and Syria, and the covert attacks by drones and Mossad agents in Iran itself (including assassinations of Iranian scientists and administrators involved in the military nuclear project and allegedly a recent drone-manufacturing facility in Isfahan.)

The purposes of the Syrian campaign are to destroy Iran’s efforts to build up a significant military presence in Syria and disrupt the line of supply to Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Hizbullah’s capabilities and Iran’s presence in Syria need to be degraded as much as possible. The concept reflects both the need to defeat Iran’s designs and a growing confidence in Israel’s ability to operate in Syria.<
Israel has a history of acting beyond its borders, based on detailed intelligence, using its special forces, and relying upon the capacity of the air force to fly long-range missions. The Entebbe raid in 1976 provided a template. So did the strikes against nuclear facilities in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007). Ships such as the “Karine-A” (2002) and “KLOS C” (2014) were apprehended on the high seas; Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad activists were assassinated in Malta, the UAE, and elsewhere; Iranian weapon depots were destroyed in Sudan. The initial concept of harassing Iran and its proxies was discussed and supported by Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi back in 2008 -when it became clear that Hizbullah was tightening its grip on Lebanon.

In  January 2013,  a truck convoy carrying surface-to-air missiles for Hizbullah was destroyed in Syria – and the present pattern of persistent air strikes, complemented by other means such as cyber attacks, began to take shape.

The Israeli air force could act almost without losses against targets in Syrian territory, as long as it secures deconfliction arrangements with foreign air forces operating there – Russia after September 2015, and the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. In Lebanon, given the lessons of the  2006 Israeli invasion, neither Israel nor Hizbullah was willing to risk the consequences of attacking targets in each other’s territory, except for very rare occasions (just five verified incidents with Hizbullah throughout the last ten years).

In September 2015, a new challenge emerged. Russia intervened to secure Assad’s survivan and deployed fighter aircraft in Syria. To secure the continued “right of passage” over Syrian airspace, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with President Vladimir Putin and arranged for a deconfliction mechanism.

A direct and secure line was established between the Russian air base at Hmeimim in northern Syria and the Israeli Air Force headquarters in Tel Aviv.  No direct clashes have occurred then or since. There was one serious indirect incident in September 2018, a Russian reconnaissance Ilyushin-20 was destroyed with 14 crewmen on board by Syrian air defenses, which mistook it for the Israeli F-16s which had conducted an earlier raid in northern Syria. The Russians initially blamed Israel for deliberately “hiding” behind their aircraft, but explanations were provided to Moscow and the incident did not disrupt the deconfliction channel.

By 2017, Israel’s attacks had accelerated and were given an official name – “The Campaign Between the Wars.” The term assumes that the Second Lebanon War in 2006, fought against Iran’s proxies, produced deterrence on both sides, but this effect will not last forever: sooner or later, another massive round will come. Meanwhile, Hizbullah’s capabilities and Iran’s presence in Syria need to be degraded as much as possible. The concept (formally incorporated in the IDF doctrine) reflects both the need to defeat Iran’s designs and a growing confidence in Israel’s ability to operate in Syria.

The campaign was translated into action in Syria on a much more intensive scale and wider scope. In 2018, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot publicly spoke of more than a thousand such air raids carried out on his watch. The interception of one F-16 by a Syrian surface-to-air missile in February 2018 – the only one so far, with no loss of life – did not deter Israel from intensifying the operational pattern.

When Iran tried to retaliate in May 2018, by firing off 34 rockets into the Israeli Golan Heights, the Israeli air force responded by a massive, coordinated attack on nearly 100 Iranian targets all over Syria.  This was one of the few cases in which Israel openly acknowledged an attack in Syria, because it came in response to an Iranian one. Otherwise, while vaguely speaking of the “Campaign between the Wars” in general terms (and even mentioning aggregate statistics), Israeli leaders refuse to comment on any specific action, leaving Assad room for denial. Otherwise, he may feel compelled to retaliate (similar Israeli silence after the raid on Syria’s nuclear plant in 2007 proved to be an effective policy).

The cost to Syria of hosting Iran’s presence and facilitating supplies to Hizbullah kept mounting: the airports of Damascus and Aleppo were disabled again and again by Israeli airstrikes. So were smaller airfields such as Dab’ah near Homs. More than 600 people were killed on Syrian soil – Syrians, Iranians and militiamen from elsewhere – and many wounded. Since 2014, Syria had lost only two fighter aircraft in the air (to Israeli air defense, not in dogfights), but had nearly 40 surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries destroyed.

The Israelis assumed that at some point the Iranians and the Syrians would no longer be able to accept the situation. Some Israeli planners and observers feared back in 2019 that the Iranians would begin to retaliate against each raid.  Still, there was no response from the regime beyond the rhetoric that described the rebel forces as Zionist stooges (so that the regime’s “revenge” would come in the form of further attacks on the remaining Syrian opposition strongholds.)

The IRGC continues to seek alternative methods of retaliation against Israel. A few drone attacks (some of them routed over Jordanian territory) were launched and foiled. Iranian agents or people in their pay plotted attacks on Israeli citizens in Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece. All were averted by the local authorities, apparently with the help of Israeli intelligence tip-offs.

What is the balance sheet to date of the Israeli campaign against Iran specifically inside Syria? As noted earlier, Israel’s military and intelligence service assess them to be effective, but is that assessment self-serving? The Iranians do have a significant presence and a number of training bases in Syria and may yet seek to expand their presence.

On the other hand, an Iranian stronghold in Syria had not materialized to date as envisioned. Specifically, the “precision project” as Israelis call it – Iran’s effort to supply Hizbullah with terminal guidance systems for their large arsenal of medium-range missiles aimed at Israel – was disrupted and delayed again and again. A senior IRGC commander, Milad Heydari, identified by Israel as a coordinator of this project, was killed along several others on 31 March 2023.

Moreover, Israel is not the only country killing IRGC recruits in Syria. Occasionally so  are US and Turkish military forces in Syria.

Iran continues its efforts in Syria directly and through proxies. The IRGC has tried to build its own air defense system on Syrian soil (given that the Syrians cannot, and the Russians would not, hamper the Israeli air force ability to strike within Syria). In response, Israel’s Defense Minister Yoav Gallant asserted in April 2023 that the IDF has doubled its rate of attacks in Syria in the first quarter of 2023.

Meanwhile, Hizbullah for the first time since 2006 sent an operative on a mission deep inside Israel, who placed a powerful roadside device near a highway junction south of Haifa. The bomb badly wounded and blinded a young Israel Arab driving his car. After a bizarre chase involving a hijacked taxi the terrorist was shot and killed: but it was obvious even beforehand that this was a departure from the patterns of terror attacks Israel had to contend with in the past.

My assessment is an interim one – to date Israel is preventing Iran from building a base for itself in Syria. But as both sides escalate their military responses, there is the danger of triggering the confrontation that both Israel and Lebanese Hizbullah have been careful to avoid for seventeen years. Threats were hurled at each other in late May 2023. Given Israel’s explicit position that a credible military threat must be part of any attempt to curb Iran’s ambitions, the line between rhetoric and action may be wearing very thin.



Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman is a former senior intelligence officer. He served as Israel’s deputy national security adviser (2009–2015), and prior to that as director, AJC Israel and ME office (2001–2009). He is currently the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a lecturer at Shalem College. @EranLerman<

June 23, 2023 | Comments »

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