Israel’s “shadow campaign” against Iran in Syria producing “partial results”

A reported Israeli attack on a weapons storage site outside Damascus on July 22, 2022. Credit: Alma Center.

by Yaakov Lappin

(JNS) — The latest reminder of Israel’s shadow war in Syria aimed at preventing Iran from installing advanced weapons and military bases in Syria or transferring them to the Hezbollah terror organization steeped in Lebanon came on July 22 when Syrian state media reported that three regime soldiers associated with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad were killed in an Israeli airstrike that hit targets in the Sayyidah Zaynab area south of Damascus.

The Syrian report outlined an Israeli modus operandi that has appeared in previous reports as well: Missiles fired from the direction of the Israeli Golan (it is unclear whether they were fired by an aircraft or from the ground), striking a number of positions in and around the country’s capital.

According to the Alma Center, an Israeli defense research center, the strikes may have targeted a shipment of precision-guided missile components intended for Hezbollah’s precision-guided missile program, and for Hezbollah’s independent production of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Since it began in 2013 in the midst of Syria’s civil war, Israel’s shadow campaign — dubbed the campaign between the wars in the defense establishment — has seen thousands of munitions fired at targets in Syria and turned Israel into the only state in the world consistently directing its firepower at Iranian entrenchment efforts in the Middle East.

Iran, for its part, seems determined to continue its entrenchment activities with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Hossein Salami reportedly paying a visit to Syria last week, possibly to plan out the next stages of Iran in Syria.

“The campaign between the wars is a strategy, not a tactical event,” Lt. Col. (ret.) Orna Mizrahi, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, told JNS.

“It developed over time; adjustments were made in line with changing conditions. Strategically, its main purpose is to delay the next war, while also reducing enemy military capabilities, and creating deterrence while also creating more comfortable conditions for Israel at the start of any potential future war,” said Mizrahi, a former Deputy National Security Adviser for Foreign Policy at the National Security Council.

Advanced weapons are most likely to attract Israeli airstrikes, as are attempts to build terrorist or military bases by the Iranian-led axis close to the Israeli border. Weapons warehouses containing arms destined for enemies of Israel — whether Hezbollah or Iranian-backed militias in Syria — appear to have formed many of the targets over the years.

Still, noted Mizrahi, Israel attempts to act with precision, avoiding noncombatants as much as possible.

‘Deterrence equation in place’

Meanwhile, Hezbollah has threatened to retaliate if its members are killed in Syria by Israeli strikes.

Mizrahi, who also served as a former intelligence analyst in the Israel Defense Force’s Military Intelligence Research Division, said some who had high hopes that Israel’s campaign would neutralize the Iranian presence in Syria or stop all weapons transfers have been in for a disappointment.

“The main issue with the IDF’s campaign is that it delivers relatively partial results. It’s not an ultimate solution. It can’t bring a total change. But that does not mean it has no achievements,” she explained. “While these achievements are limited, there is no doubt it pushed away problematic elements from the Syrian Golan near Israel and damaged Iranian entrenchment abilities in Syria. It reduced the arms flow to Hezbollah and forced the Iranian-Hezbollah axis to change working methods. Still, this is not a fundamental change to the situation.”

The question of how long Israel’s campaign between the wars can continue — and the extent of the influence it has on the ground — is a fixed dilemma for the defense establishment, said Mizrahi.

“The conditions of the Syrian civil war allowed the IDF to operate in the Syrian arena mainly, but this campaign is not active in a similar way in Lebanon because of the [mutual] deterrence equation in place between Israel and Hezbollah,” she assessed, adding that “there’s always a debate over how much it has an influence, how much it can harm enemy capabilities, and the extent of the deterrence it generates.”

Multiple actors in Syria could, in theory, alter their response to Israel’s campaign and affect the cost-benefit calculations in Israel. “Decisions by Syria, Iran or Russia could change,” noted Mizrahi.

‘The balance could change’

On May 13, international media reports said that amid rising tensions between Jerusalem and Moscow over the war in Ukraine, a Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missile battery stationed in northern Syria fired at Israeli Air Force jets for the first time.

“Israel has tried to walk a fine line, preserving relations with Russia as a great power,” said Mizrahi. “In the past, the assessment here in Israel was that Russia permitted Israeli strikes because of the tension that exists between Russia and Iran over who controls Syria. In this context, it was very comfortable for Russia that Israel worked against Iran, thereby boosting Russian influence in Syria and making it more significant than Iranian influence.”

That, however, could change due to the Russian war on Ukraine, which has pushed Russian President Vladimir Putin into a closer relationship with the Iranian regime.

“The balance could change,” stated Mizrachi. “Still, I think that Russia has no interest in creating friction with Israel when it is so heavily engaged in Ukraine. Russia’s air base and naval base in Syria are very important to it. Russia views Israel as a regional military power that has to be taken into consideration, and which can harm it. Hence, they hint that Israel should act differently in Syria, but they do not take significant military or diplomatic steps to make Israel stop its campaign.”

Although a number of observers have already eulogized the campaign in Syria or claimed that its time is up, the fact is that Israel continues with it, she noted.

“Even if less comfortable conditions arise, the campaign can still continue. But I won’t say it can continue forever. Circumstances can change enough to force Israel to reconsider, whether that is a Russian decision to activate air-defense systems, or to allow Syria to do so,” cautioned Mizrahi.

Syria is in possession of Russian-made S-300 batteries.

“At the moment, the Israeli campaign continues, and so it should. It should go on as long as possible,” she affirmed. “It has achievements, even if they are limited and partial.”