Why it's not so quiet on Israel's northern front

Key operations are part of the regional strategic contest underway between Israel and its allies and Iran


Israeli troops are pictured during a military drill in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on January 13, 2021. - Israeli night raids targeting arms depots and military positions in eastern Syria killed at least seven Syrian soldiers and 16 allied fighters, in the deadliest raids this year, a war monitor said. The Israeli air force carried out more than 18 strikes against multiple targets in an area stretching from the eastern town of Deir Ezzor to the Iraqi border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. (Photo by JALAA MAREY / AFP) (Photo by JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, Israel carried out a series of major airstrikes against Iranian targets in the deserts of south east Syria. The peak of intensity was reached on the night of January 12, when 57 people were killed according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which monitors developments on the ground in Syria.

This was the third strike to take place since the beginning of 2021. The dead were members of the coalition of forces aligned with Teheran in the country: Syrian regime soldiers, Iraqi Shia militiamen and members of the Fatemiyoun, the Afghan Shia militia deployed by Iran in Syria. The targets were drawn from the extensive infrastructure of warehouses, arms depots and military facilities maintained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in this remote, inhospitable landscape which traverses the nominal border between Syria and Iraq.

The raids resulted in the largest death toll in a single day for the Iranians at the hands of Israel since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, according to SOHR.

That was not the last engagement to date. Syrian sources reported a fourth airstrike on January 31, targeting pro-Iranian militias near the Abu Kamal border crossing between eastern Syria and Iraq.

Last month’s events form the latest chapter in an ongoing, undeclared war between Israel and Iran conducted on Syrian soil. This is a very 21st century conflict. It takes place mainly far from the headlines. And it involves only very small numbers of the citizens and capabilities of the two states which are engaged in it.

On the Israeli side, parts of the air force, the intelligence services and members of certain special forces units are engaged. On the Iranian side, the Qods Force of the IRGC and their loyal lieutenants in Lebanese Hezbollah are marshalling an array of mainly (but not entirely) Shia volunteer fighters hailing from a variety of locations, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Pakistan.

The stakes are very high. The Iranians are seeking to construct an area of contiguous control stretching from Iran itself across Iraq, through Syria and reaching Lebanon and the Mediterranean; from there to the Israeli controlled Golan Heights. Achieving this would confer manifold strategic benefits on the Iranian regime. It would at the most basic level bring direct access to the Mediterranean, a goal of Persian empires since antiquity.

Of more urgency to Israel, the intention of the Iranians is to use this corridor for the transport of weapons to Lebanese Hezbollah, for stationing and transporting fighters and for deploying and eventually activating missile systems against Israel.

Teheran also intends to create a second front for paramilitary activity against the Jewish state in Syria’s Quneitra Province, which faces the Golan Heights. This front would be intended to resemble and to assist the current confrontation line along the border of Israel and Lebanon.

As of now, Iran has secured its control of and freedom of action in Lebanon in its entirety. In Iraq, it does not exercise a similar level of full spectrum dominance but its militia clients have freedom of movement across the territory. In Syria, the Iranians played a key role in the preservation of the Ba’ath regime. They control a contiguous line across the country. But they have yet to consolidate and entrench their presence along this line.

The unique geopolitical situation of Syria at the present time, divided into areas under different authorities and without an internationally legitimate government, has created a situation in which the putative Iranian project is vulnerable to Israeli efforts to degrade and disrupt it.

The significance of the Israeli effort goes beyond Syria. By hitting the Iranian project at its weakest point, Jerusalem intends to disrupt it in its entirety. A bridge with a gap in its middle, after all, is of limited use. This is the meaning of the current battle of wills between Jerusalem and Tehran in the ruins of Syria.

So what is the current balance of advantage? Israeli security officials are optimistic regarding the success of the air campaign in disrupting Iranian attempts to seed a hard military infrastructure of missile emplacements, bases and permanent emplacements in Syria. A former national security adviser, Yaacov Amidror, told me that he estimated 80-85 per cent of this effort had been destroyed. Indeed, the concentration of Iranian facilities close to the remote border with Iraq (and on the other side of it) may well be a response to Israeli successes at eliminating or rendering unusable infrastructure further west, at the Damascus airport and at al-Kiswah south of the Syrian capital, in the course of the last year.

When it comes to the broader Iranian project of recruiting local militias and deploying them along the area of control, Israeli success has been more modest. The latest evidence suggests that the Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah are currently located near the Quneitra Crossing and the Golan, woven into the fabric of Brigade 90 of the Syrian government army. This aspect of the project is rather harder to destroy from the air.

Some analysts have suggested that the flurry of Israeli activity in January on this front was connected to the change of power in Washington DC.

By this reading, Israel was seeking to use up the remaining minutes on the clock available to it before a new President probably less willing to permit the Israeli campaign to continue took office.

This explanation is unconvincing. Regardless of President Biden’s stance regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, there are no indications that he is opposed to the ongoing Israeli effort against Iran in Syria. The Israeli campaign of disruption looks set to continue. As does the opposing Iranian effort to entrench and consolidate. It is part of the larger regional strategic contest underway between Israel and its allies and Iran. All is not quiet on the northern front.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive