Iranian octopus is only losing tentacles in Syria

Precision strikes alone will not oust Tehran's proxies from its neighbour's territory


TOPSHOT - A crowd gathers during commemorations marking the second anniversary of the killing of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (posters), in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, on January 8, 2022. - The January 3, 2020 strike against Soleimani, the architect of Iran's Middle Eastern military strategy, was ordered by then US president Donald Trump, and it also killed his Iraqi lieutenant Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Hashed's deputy chief. (Photo by Hussein FALEH / AFP) (Photo by HUSSEIN FALEH/AFP via Getty Images)

American forces launched two rounds of airstrikes on Iranian-backed units in Syria in late August.

The strikes were designed to disrupt pro-Iranian forces that have been targeting US bases in Syria with rockets. In one of the airstrikes, a missile slammed into a truck; in two others, they hit rocket launchers, according to videos released to BBC Persian by the US-led Coalition.

The US used F-16s and F-15s to target the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp affiliates in Syria. An Apache helicopter monitored and recorded video, confirming the damage done.

The number of targets was limited: some ammunition and storage bunkers, the truck and some launchers.

Several militants were apparently killed. The equipment will be easily replaced by Iran and its proxies in Syria. Overcoming Iran’s use of Syria as a platform to threaten the region could be a key policy goal of Jerusalem and Washington, but both prefer a more constrained approach.

The current rounds of strikes are part of a much larger conflict playing itself out in Syria. Israel has been fighting a decade-long conflict against Iranian entrenchment in the country.

This struggle is often called the “campaign between the wars”. The goal is to wage systematic operations against Iran and its proxies, particularly targeting their efforts to traffic weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The campaign has been conducted with precision airstrikes, such as the recent US ones, which have targeted buildings or convoys but have rarely resulted in casualties.

Israel’s struggle against Iran’s entrenchment in Syria is important today because of how this low-level conflict of precision attacks intersects with the US role in Syria, Iran’s attempts to use Syria to strike at Israel and the overall talk of a new Iran deal.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organisation based in the UK that monitors Syria, reported on 28 August that an Israeli airstrike near Masyaf in Syria destroyed 1,000 Iranian-made missiles.

“The attack targeted a missile warehouse in the city’s Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC) complex that stored thousands of medium-range, surface-to-surface missiles assembled under the supervision of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s ‘expert officers’,” the group said. Another report the same day alleged that Iran-US tensions in Syria are linked to Israel’s strikes.

What’s really going on? Is Syria trying to restrain Iran’s actions against Israel by redirecting Iran to strike at the US in Syria? The New York Times reported last year that Iran has targeted the US base in Al-Tanf, a forlorn outpost near Syria’s border with Jordan, in the wake of Israeli strikes. Iran may also have carried out attacks in Iraq in response to Israeli hits.

Iran’s game plan, then, is to increase the cost of Israeli raids by wreaking havoc across the region. This comes after years in which Iran had no real way to respond.

Back in 2013, a Western diplomat first hinted at Israel’s efforts against Iran in Syria after an airstrike targeted vehicles. “The target was a truck loaded with weapons, heading from Syria to Lebanon,” the diplomat told Reuters. The vehicle may have been carrying anti-aircraft missiles and rockets.

By 2017, Israel had acknowledged striking more than 100 convoys in Syria, and by January 2019 the number of targets struck numbered in “the thousands”. Iran didn’t respond to these attacks.

In the rare cases where Hezbollah members have been casualties of attacks in Syria, Hezbollah has responded or claimed it has the right to respond, drawing a clear line between what might happen in Syria when faceless convoys are struck and when operatives die.

There are high stakes in Syria. The current conflict against Iran’s arms smuggling and axis of proxy militias there began during the breakdown in the Syrian state caused by the civil war.

Between 2012 and 2018, the Syrian regime was busy fighting rebels and Iran used Syria as a platform to entrench.

It moved IRGC operatives into Damascus and set up a chain of posts manned by militias that stretch from the Iraqi border to the Lebanese border. This has even reportedly involved attempts to bring in Iranian air defences in key areas such as the T-4 base, near the archaeological site of Palmyra.

Iran exploited the battle against Isis to move units from Iraq into Syria. With the terror organisation defeated, Iran set up shop in Al-Bukamal on the Syrian-Iraq border, moving Kataib Hezbollah units into town.

That group was run by Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, an Iraqi operative who had been doing Iran’s terrorist bidding for a quarter of a century.

You might recall that the US killed Al-Muhandis, along with IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani, in 2019.

The killing of Muhandis and Soleimani was only a temporary setback for Iran, which has continued to entrench in Syria. It has increasingly relied on drones flown from the country, and more recently from Iraq and Iran, to try to strike at Israel.

US-Israeli cooperation on Syrian issues, including Israeli airstrikes, has been instrumental in confronting Iran’s threats. American fighter jets shot down Iranian drones that were heading to Israel in February.

However, whether the US is shooting down drones or striking the truck of an IRGC-affiliate, or whether Israel is continuing to carry out its campaign between wars, the Iranian octopus lives. The “whack-a-mole” strategy of taking out missiles or storage rooms presents Iran with material losses but no real deterrence.

It is Iran’s militias and Iran’s attempt to entrench in Syria that are causing the tensions, but Iran’s goal is to shift some of the burden of the conflict in Syria onto the US, hoping to draw US forces into greater tensions in the east, where it has been busy backing the fight against Isis.

Iran is gambling that the US doesn’t want more problems in Syria or Iraq. At the same time, it is gambling that Russia, which backs the Syrian regime, doesn’t want it destabilised by the US or Israel.

With reports that Russia is moving its S-300 missile systems out of Syria to Ukraine, the Kremlin will be telling the Syrian regime that it is even less protected than in the past.

This is potentially an opening for the US and Israel to do more against Iran in Syria.

However, past policy has been precision strikes against emerging threats, meaning the ball is always in Iran’s court.

Iran is the one that chooses when to send drones and when to move missiles. The campaign between the wars is a reaction to Iran and Iran holds the keys to a swathe of Syria.

Until Israel, the US or their partners come up with a way to take the keys away from Iran, the ball will always be in Tehran’s hands.

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