Israel’s new type of war means Iran will never achieve its goals in Syria

Iran has turned its focus to long-term, strategic advantages it hopes can strengthen its influence in the Syria/Lebanon territorial sphere.
Sunday 23/02/2020
An Israeli soldier launches an unmanned aerial drone near the Quneitra crossing, the only border crossing with Syria in the Golan Heights. (AFP)
Close monitoring. An Israeli soldier launches an unmanned aerial drone near the Quneitra crossing, the only border crossing with Syria in the Golan Heights. (AFP)

In the eight years since Iran embarked on an embedding process to establish a permanent presence in Syria, Israel has struck Iranian targets hundreds of times but in recent months there has been a steep uptick in those attacks.

Ten Syrians and foreign fighters — almost always Iranian — were killed in Quneitra last June and 11 more in November. On February 13, Damascus International Airport was struck for the umpteenth time, when Israeli missiles killed seven fighters believed to have been involved in a weapons delivery that had just arrived from Iran.

The Syrian government under President Bashar Assad is powerless to prevent the attacks or the repeated breach of its territorial sovereignty, despite that it casts itself as the protector of the Syrian people. However, there’s nothing new about that.

What is telling is that Assad’s government is penniless; it has little to no material way of paying Iran back for the multitude of ways Tehran has helped throughout the conflict.

There is one important way, however, Damascus can repay the debt: allow Iran free rein to use Syria to get at Israel.

As a result, Iran has turned its focus to long-term, strategic advantages it hopes can strengthen its influence in the Syria/Lebanon territorial sphere. It is thought to command tens of thousands of militia members across Syria but more important are its attempts to establish a web of covert operations.

In December, a Fox News report claimed Iran was building underground tunnels — large enough to pass vehicles through — on the Syrian-Iraqi border at its Imam Ali base, close to Albukamal. The implication is that Tehran’s big picture plan is to link Iran all the way to Lebanon through a series of cross-border tunnels.

It’s likely Iran is attempting to replicate the kind of subterranean network Hezbollah built over the decades in southern Lebanon, some of which extended into Israeli territory. Israel said last year it found and destroyed all tunnels that impinged on its territory but Reuters reported that some of those tunnels went 22 storeys — 80 metres — deep.

As Hamas did in Gaza in 2014, Hezbollah was expected to use tunnels to fire rockets from inside Israel proper, before their discovery.

Iran’s plan in Syria looks very similar, indeed. That would explain why most of the Iranian activity — and Israeli attacks — have been concentrated in Syria’s southern regions close to Israel, such as Daraa and Quneitra.

Tehran probably hopes to one day connect Hezbollah’s infrastructure in Lebanon with a similar underground system close to the illegally occupied Syrian Golan Heights. It’s likely it, too, has hopes of tunnelling into the Golan Heights proper.

Israel, of course, knows this. On February 11, Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett told a memorial gathering that “we are now engaged in a continued effort to weaken the Iranian octopus through economic, diplomatic and intelligence measures, as well as with military means and various other approaches” and that “you (Iran) have no business being in Syria and, so long as you continue to build terrorist bases there, we will continue to hurt you even further.”

Days previously, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned: “I’ll tell you what else (Iran is) failing at: in transferring weapons to Syria and Lebanon because we are operating there all the time, including at this time.” In this, Israel basically admitted it had spies on the ground in Syria.

This helps paint a larger picture of how advanced Israel’s intelligence and security activities are and how we can expect it to always be one step ahead of Iran.

That’s because an incredible 20% of global venture capitalist investment in cybersecurity is made in Israeli companies. Israel’s drone technology development industry puts it in the top two or three countries in the world. Iran, by contrast, is struggling with mass public unrest.

In January, it was reported that Israel had begun building an “anti-tunnel sensor” along its border with Lebanon. The system apparently uses cutting-edge acoustic and seismic measurements to detect subterranean digging.

What can Iran ever hope to gain in Syria with Israel constantly on its back? Very little, it seems.

Almost every time it attempts to move weapons into or across Syria, often using commercial planes to disguise the cargo, Israel attacks, lives are lost and further infrastructural damage is visited on the country’s main airport. Israel targeted the Imam Ali base with missile strikes in September and again in January.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Iran is deploying 20th-century weapons — spies, boots on the ground and underground tunnels in Syria — in an attempt to win a 21st-century war in which cybersecurity, unmanned drones and satellite technology will decide the outcome.

As a result, however much time, effort and expense Iranian officials put into carving out a long-term presence in Syria, their dream of operating freely over an open, borderless landmass from Tehran to the Mediterranean will remain exactly just that.

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