Over the past six weeks, an apparent calm has defined the normally actively hostile Israeli-Iranian relationship over Syria. The last detected Israeli airstrike in Syria was on Sept. 17. The arrival of Russian personnel to Syria’s border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights appears to have stabilized a previously tense region. However, all is not as it seems. While Iran appears to be shifting to a strategy of consolidation in Syria, its focus may be turning to enhancing Hezbollah’s capabilities in Lebanon — something that would raise the risk of conflict more than ever before.
A Deceptive Lull
Israel’s unusual operational calm over Syria came on the heels of an explosive incident on Sept. 17: Syrian air defenses shot down a Russian reconnaissance aircraft in a “berserk” volley of air defense fire that began 10 minutes after Israeli jets fired on a convoy of trucks carrying weapons destined for Hezbollah.
Russian President Vladimir Putin initially said the downing of his military’s IL-20 aircraft was “the result of a chain of tragic and chance circumstances,” but the Russian line soon turned sour. Ultimately, Russia ended up accusing Israel of complicity and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu revealed plans to provide Syria with more advanced S-300 air defense systems and an improved command and control infrastructure, as well as an enhanced ability to use electronic countermeasures against enemy aircraft. That process began on Oct. 1, when several S-300s and other supporting armaments arrived in Syria. Three weeks later, Israeli satellite imagery revealed their deployment to the expansive Masyaf Airbase in Hama governorate.
Israel’s inactivity in Syria since Sept. 17 does not appear to be a coincidence, as several Israeli and U.S. officials have told me in recent days. The Israel-Russia military relationship took a dent six weeks ago, and a crisis of confidence has followed. Russia has reportedly sought to renegotiate its deconfliction arrangements with Israel. Meanwhile, Israel feels less certain of the Russian military’s good intentions, one official told me. Israeli military analysts are unsure how much more challenging the newly arrived S-300s might make the already difficult Syrian environment.
Despite these concerns, however, Israel has made its intentions clear: Detected serious threats will be targeted. Even the downing of an Israeli F-16 on Feb. 10 – the first such loss since 1982 – did not deter Israel, so it is unrealistic to expect that this latest conflagration will. After all, Israel’s new F-35 Adir fighter jets, which can evade Syrian radars, have already been deployed operationally in Syria. Moreover, Israel has trained repeatedly against the S-300 in Crete. Nevertheless, when Israel resumes strikes over Syria, it will be doing so amid greater risks than ever before.
Iran’s Shifting Strategy
Since 2017, Israel has conducted more than 200 strikes to stifle Iran’s attempts to expand its military infrastructure and technological capabilities. Most significantly, on May 10, the Israel Air Force launched “Operation House of Cards,” in which 28 aircraft launched at least 70 strikes on more than 50 Syrian air defense assets and targets linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
According to two officials who work on the issue, this appears to have encouraged the IRGC to initiate a phase of the military, political, economic and cultural consolidation in Syria. As a result, a new Iranian strategic shift is underway, the implications of which should raise serious concern: Iran appears now to be shifting the emphasis of its military enhancement from Syria to Lebanon.
While Israeli strikes in Syria could spiral into open conflict, mechanisms are in place to help prevent that. In Lebanon, however, a single Israeli strike could escalate rapidly into a war that some have warned would be “catastrophic” for Lebanon. Under that cover, Iran seeks to strengthen Hezbollah’s capacity in Lebanon, hoping that the consequences of escalation there will deter Israel from using military means to neutralize newly perceived threats.
Israeli, U.S., and European intelligence have detected signs of this shift, including the use of civilian airliners to transport precision guidance technology into Lebanon for use in what Israel has called Iran’s “Missile Accuracy Project,” or “MAP.” According to Israel, Iran and Hezbollah are using secret facilities in Beirut to convert missiles lacking guidance mechanisms into precision-guided missiles with “an accuracy of 10 meters.”
Open-source flight tracking has revealed a series of flights operated by Qeshm Fars Air from Tehran to Beirut, which Western intelligence officials have linked to Iran’s new Lebanon-specific priority. Former Israeli military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, recently highlighted this new strategy as “ a very difficult dilemma for Israel,” given the strong likelihood of certain war should Israel strike a target in Lebanon.
Hezbollah is said to command an arsenal of 100,000-150,000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon. If even a small portion of those projectiles were fitted with reasonable guidance technology, the risk to Israel’s critical infrastructure — including its dangerously vulnerable electricity grid –could be severe. Despite Israel’s impressive layered array of air defense systems – combining the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow and Patriot systems – a “saturation attack” would overwhelm Israel’s ability to defend itself fully. Given the risks, how long can Israel hold back when the technology to carry out such attacks is reportedly arriving in Lebanon, virtually as this article is being read? And, should Israel act, how will Russia respond given the likely spillover to Syria? The stakes here are high.
A Policy Quandary
The policy challenge here is particularly formidable. While one should expect Israel to calculate its responses carefully in order to avoid a catastrophic escalation, it will nonetheless still act if its clearly drawn red lines are crossed. The U.S. and allies must therefore urgently focus on constraining Iran’s ability to send weapons and technology to Hezbollah in Lebanon along ground routes via Iraq and Syria and, most importantly, via otherwise sanctioned air routes direct from Tehran. Regarding the air, the U.S. and international partners should more determinedly sanction any Iranian civilian airlines being used to ferry weapons to Syria and Lebanon, and on the ground, the U.S. military should utilize its outpost in al-Tanf to project force north into the Syrian desert, specifically to the desert roads between Iraq and Damascus. The U.S. could and should then share intelligence with Israel, informing it of Iranian movements. One would hope the combination of these efforts would change Iran’s cost-benefit calculations, encouraging it to desist.
A “balance of terror” is already in place between Israel and Hezbollah/Iran in Lebanon – something that is arguably in all actors’ favor, at least for now. Iran should not be given the space to alter that equation, thereby removing the crucial line of deterrence that has remained in place since 2006.
Charles Lister is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Extremism and Counterterrorism Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI). Lister’s work focuses primarily on the conflict in Syria, including as a member of the MEI-convened Syria Study Group; and on issues of terrorism and insurgency across the Levant. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, “The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency” (Oxford University Press, 2016).