Why Iran is absorbing the blows inflicted by Israel on its militant proxies in Syria
LONDON: Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran and its allied proxies inside Syria since the country’s descent into civil war more than a decade ago, with Tel Aviv officials making it clear that ‘they would refuse to tolerate any Iranian entrenchment along their northern border.
Israeli warplanes have repeatedly attacked Iran-linked facilities and weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah’s proxies from Tehran in Lebanon. On May 5, Israeli strikes in the Syrian provinces of Latakia and Hama claimed the lives of at least eight people on the payroll of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
Despite persistent shelling and loss of personnel, experts say the IRGC is unlikely to respond directly or relinquish its military presence anytime soon. The reason: Syria is simply too valuable a strategic prize for Tehran to give up.
“Israel and Iran both believe they have vital national security interests at stake in Syria,” said Chris Bolan, professor of Middle Eastern security studies at the US Army’s War College, at Arab News.
The Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which intervened at the start of the Syrian civil war to support the Assad regime, is at the heart of Israel’s national security headache in Syria, said Bolan.
“Israeli concerns about Iran’s support for Hezbollah persist and will continue regardless of the outcome of the (nuclear) negotiations in Vienna. These concerns have only been exacerbated by Iran’s growing military presence and intervention on behalf of Syrian President Assad since the start of the civil war, ”he said.
“Israel will continue to take all necessary measures – including air strikes – to both minimize the threat posed by Hezbollah’s growing and sophisticated missile arsenal and ensure that Iran’s military presence in Syria does not constitute an immediate threat to Israel.
Likewise, Iranian leaders regard their support for Hezbollah as an essential element of Iran’s national security strategy of advanced defense. A well-equipped Hezbollah that poses a significant threat to Israel is Tehran’s most powerful deterrent against large-scale Israeli or Western strikes.
Alongside Hezbollah, the IRGC fed, trained and armed a host of other militias across Syria. By shipping fighters from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and even Pakistan, Tehran has created its own army of Shiite mercenaries in Syria.
Yet on the front lines of Syria and at the mercy of Israeli warplanes, these foreign fighters have paid a heavy price for their allegiance to Tehran.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH), between January 2018, when Israel’s involvement in Syria first intensified, and January 2020, nearly 500 Iranian-backed fighters were directly killed by Israeli airstrikes.
This figure includes “228 militiamen of Lebanese Hezbollah and militias supported by Iran” and “171 members of the Iranian forces and the Corps of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards”, as well as nearly 100 pro-government Syrian militias.
Thousands more have died on the front lines in direct clashes with rebels and Daesh militants.
According to SOHR, the May 5 strikes alone left eight people dead: five Iranians and Afghans, one Syrian and two others of “non-Syrian” nationality.
“The death toll is expected to increase further as the attack left many injured, some seriously, including Lebanese militiamen and officers,” he said. It is not yet known whether members of Hezbollah were killed or injured.
Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s counterterrorism and intelligence program, said Hezbollah is unlikely to strike back at Israel despite the heavy losses.
“Hezbollah has a clear record over the past few years in responding to Israeli strikes in Syria only when those strikes kill Hezbollah operatives,” Levitt told Arab News.
“As long as the Israeli strikes hit only Hezbollah’s arms shipments or infrastructure, the group is unlikely to respond directly against Israel for fear of igniting a cross-border conflict it currently wants to avoid.
“Hezbollah prefers to avoid waging wars on two different fronts at the same time (Syria and Israel), and is also sensitive to the idea of dragging Lebanon into a war with Israel that the vast majority of Lebanese do not want, at a time when Lebanon is experiencing serious difficulties. economic and political instability. “
Instead, in the face of escalating losses, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah resorted to fiery rhetoric and lofty promises.
Just days after the latest strikes, Iranian state-backed media quoted Nasrallah as saying, “The ‘Israelis’ are now concerned about the growing capacities of the Resistance Axis. The “Israeli” entity is in difficulty and its wall is cracking; there is a leadership crisis and it is a sign of collapse and weakness. “
Regardless of how Hezbollah chooses to dress it, Israel’s air campaign has not only claimed hundreds of lives, but has also succeeded in achieving its stated goal of preventing Iran’s widespread implantation. in Syria, especially in the south of the country.
“Israeli airstrikes against Iranian-backed groups have been effective enough to destroy and disrupt key targets in Syria,” said Johan Obdola, founder of the International Security and Intelligence Organization.
During the Syrian war, Israel bombed secret weapons depots in major cities, key infrastructure including highways, as well as hundreds of shipments of missiles and other weapons destined for Iran’s allies.
“These constant airstrikes have severely affected Iran’s advanced weapons smuggling operations, including missiles destined for Hezbollah in Syria, as well as pre-existing warehouses and underground complexes that serve as pipelines for military components,” Obdola said.
That said, Israel cannot afford to rest on its laurels, experts say. If talks fail between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program, Bolan warns, the standoff in Syria between Iran and Israel could become even more volatile.
“The outcome of the negotiations is unlikely to significantly alter the basic calculations of Israeli or Iranian interests rooted in Syria,” Bolan said.
“Nonetheless, the failure of the negotiations in Vienna will likely exacerbate the already growing tensions between Israel and Iran inside Syria and thus increase the prospect of an escalation, whether intentional or not.”
Obdola, for his part, said Iran and its allies would likely take advantage of the talks and any sanctions relief obtained as an opportunity to strengthen their position against Israel.
“The nuclear talks represent an opportunity for Iran to advance its plan against Israel,” he said.
The end of the sanctions against Iran “would facilitate the expansion of Iran and Hezbollah not only in Syria, but in other countries of the world where they have set up an aggressive military, militia and terrorist network.”
• Twitter: @CHamillStewart