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Stepping up: Israel’s increasing anxiety about Syria

Syria is very popular in the Middle East. Practically every regional power has sent forces, intervened, sponsored proxies or affected this conflict in some way. Yet perhaps one actor that has received less attention than most is Israel. 
Thus far, Israel has carried out, according to the Israeli military in August, more than 100 strikes within Syria during the past five years. The frequency has increased in recent months. 
The Syrian regime typically responds with empty threats, promising that next time Israel will pay heavy consequences. The latest was just last week, when Israeli jets reportedly hit a security center south of Homs. Syrian regime sources claim that they responded with surface-to-air missiles. 
What is clear is that the Syrian regime cannot risk any form of confrontation with Israel.  Israeli defense chiefs know this. Syrian regime forces are exhausted and overstretched, and perhaps most embarrassingly, for the regime, simply incapable of matching Israeli military technology and might. 
From 2011, the Syrian regime myth that its armed forces were built up to defend the country from Israel was also busted. Syrians saw that the real reason was to defend the regime from them and from any internal threat. The tanks and guns were turned on the Syrian people. 
But what are Israeli motives and does Israel have a strategy on Syria? Much of the region is instinctively suspicious of any Israeli actions across its borders. Many attribute grand conspiratorial schemes to Israeli moves. Israel has interfered in the region nowhere more so than in Lebanon, where Israeli leaders dreamed of creating a Maronite-client state that would be a regional ally. Israel has looked to non-Arab partners in the region at varying times such as Turkey, the Kurds and of course Iran under the Shah. The thinking was that Arabs would be a permanent hostile presence, so Israel could ally with those who felt threatened by the dominant ethnicity of the region. Likewise, Israel tried to attract support from religious minorities such as the Christians and the Druze, tapping into fears of Muslim domination. 
What is not always understood is that from the start of the Syria crisis, the Israeli establishment was massively divided. The Syrian regime was its mortal foe to the north so no Israeli leader wishes Assad well. The regime has largely fought Israel through Lebanon for the past four decades, and had with Iran, used Hezbollah to threaten Israel and undermine Lebanon from within. A portion of Israeli policymakers believed that the fall of Assad should be expedited. And Israeli leaders believed that the war meant that it could never be forced to return the Golan Heights to a crumbling regime. In fact, Israel has expanded illegal settlements in the Golan under the cover of the Syrian conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views Iran as a huge menace in Syria yet he knows that there’s very little he can do to push Iran out.

Chris Doyle

Against that view, many argued that Israel knew this regime backwards, how it operated, its strengths and weaknesses. It was useful to have one single address in Damascus to deliver the robust messages that Tel Aviv needed to. The fear was that if the regime fell, a dangerous vacuum could lead to a free-for-all and proliferation of numerous non-state actors fueled by extremist ideologies with access to Syria’s huge cache of conventional weapons and its chemical arsenal. This nightmare materialized even though the regime, albeit even more a creature of Russia and Iran, remains in place. Israeli strategists also understood that given Israel’s regional reputation, any actions it took were likely to be misinterpreted. Israelis understood that it has limited ability to determine the outcome of the conflict.  
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu laid out his red lines early on. Israel would act to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. He has repeated this even after Russia’s direct military intervention started in 2015,  and made this clear in each of his four visits to Russia over the past 18 months. Israel has also acted to prevent extremist militants from operating on its northern border.
Yet increasingly Israel has had a further concern. In a speech at Chatham House on Nov. 3 the Israeli prime minister made clear that he saw Iran as a huge menace in Syria. “Iran had come into the Syrian war to Lebanon-ize Syria economically and militarily. They want to leave their army, their airbases and fighter aircraft within seconds of Israel and we are not going to let that happen. We do not say that lightly. We mean what we say and we back it with action.”
Iran rather than extremist militant groups was always Israel’s primary concern in Syria. Netanyahu’s problem is that while he has a close relationship with President Donald Trump, the American president has yet to outline anything approaching a strategy on Syria or Iran. Trump has focused solely on smashing Daesh but as far as the Iranian presence is concerned, it has been a series of vague empty threats. Israeli officials are also not optimistic that Russia will do what the US has not, and push Iran out. 
The question is what can or will Israel do to reverse Iran’s gains or even constrain it? Short of a conflict, probably with Hezbollah, the answer for the moment is, not very much. 
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech