Know Comment: Can Israel force Iran out of Syria?

Israel has fully joined the battle in Syria – a war against Iran in Syria – but it’s not clear it can achieve any of its goals there. It will be very hard to force the complete withdrawal of Iranian forces and their proxies from Syria.

According to Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies (and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post) Tehran has invested somewhere between $30 billion and $100 billion (!) in propping-up the Assad regime and building its own military infrastructures in Syria over the last seven years. The Iranian investment in Syria is deep, formally based and long-standing.

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Iran did so for good strategic reasons from its point of view: to create a hegemonic land bridge under Iranian sway from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean and to establish a new front against Israel. The ayatollahs aren’t going to simply reverse course, write off that investment and decamp back to Iran just because the Israel Air Force occasionally strikes a missile shipment to Hezbollah or a few anti-aircraft batteries. Iran is in this fight for the long term.

If Israel seeks to prevent the consolidation of an independent infrastructure of military and political power by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Syrian soil, along the lines of IRGC’s existing bases in Lebanon and Iraq, it is going to have to gear-up for more sustained conflict.

“The IDF will continue to act with full determination and strength against Iran’s attempts to station forces and advanced weapons systems in Syria,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an especially tough speech in Dimona last month.

But this raises a series of difficult questions: Is broad-scale and perhaps direct ground warfare against the increasingly-entrenched Iranian forces in Syria coming, and is it worth the costs and risks? Is the IDF ready for such a sustained military campaign? Is the Israeli public ready to absorb the cost this will entail? And does Israel have not only the declarative backing of the US for such an effort, but also its guaranteed active involvement, including confrontation with Russia forces if necessary?

The answer to the critical first question is a resounding yes, according to Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror (who is now the Anne and Greg Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies).
In a major study published online this week (at jiss.org.il), titled “The Logic of Israel’s Actions to Contain Iran in Syria and Lebanon,” Amidror explains in stark terms why Israel must act forcefully against Iran even if this leads to full-scale war. The Hebrew-language version of the study caused a stir at defense headquarters in Tel Aviv and at intelligence headquarters in Glilot, and the English version is now reverberating through Western capitals.

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AMIDROR VIEWS the Iranian beachhead in Syria and Iraq not only as a conventional threat to Israel (especially if Tehran bases accurate and advanced missiles closer than ever to Israel’s population centers), but even worse, as a cover for Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Iran aims to have Hezbollah and the other Shi’ite forces it is building up in Syria (and to the extent possible, forces in Judea and Samaria and Gaza, too), acquire the capability of striking Israel so severely that no responsible Israeli leader would dare attack the nuclear weapons infrastructures being constructed in Iran, says Amidror. He calls this Iran’s attempt to create a “deterrence barrier” to protect its nuclear program; a program that has been thinly and only temporarily mothballed (if at all), Amidror is sure.

Amidror compares the Iranian strategic concept to that which pertains on the Korean peninsula. North Korea’s conventional threat against South Korea has become so overwhelming that it has left South Korean leaders paralyzed, preventing any action against the North’s non-conventional threat. Amidror says that Iran is building-up Hezbollah and its own forces in Syria because Tehran aspires to achieve a similar “Korean” state of affairs – to deter Israel from acting against Iran’s nuclear program.

“If Iran acquires the capability to attack Israel with a high degree of precision using missiles from Syria and Lebanon, Israel’s strategic situation would significantly worsen,” Amidror writes. “And given that the construction of an Iranian force in Syria is intended to deter Israel from acting to prevent Iran’s progress in the military nuclear sphere, impeding this undertaking justifies an Israeli preventive attack if the need arises or a suitable opportunity presents itself.

“Israel must prevent the creation of an Iranian deterrence barrier at any cost, even if an Israeli attack will lead to war – that is, a large-scale operation involving fierce hostilities in Syria and Lebanon, as well as massive and painful assaults on the Israeli home front.”

This leaves Israel with quite a few challenges. On the diplomatic front, Israel must secure the freedom of action it needs to operate in Syria despite the presence of Russian forces, be they independent or part of the Syrian Army’s advisory network. This may have become more difficult following the incident last week in which a Russian transport aircraft was downed, killing 15 Russian military personnel.

Simultaneously, and without undermining the first element, Israel must enlist a reluctant America to take an active part in operations alongside it, and not only as a supportive observer from the sidelines. “Without such diplomatic backing, Israel will find it difficult to use its armed forces in the region in a situation where the two superpowers have a military presence,” avers Amidror.

Iran poses one of the most complicated and dangerous challenges Israel has faced over the 70 years of its existence. But “Israel must win this struggle against Iran, one way or another,” Amidror declares.

The writer is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, jiss.org.il, which is convening an October 21 conference on Israel’s confrontation with Iran, featuring Maj.-Gen. Amidror and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

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