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The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Photo by Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons.
The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Photo by Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons.
featureMiddle East

A decade into the shadow war in Syria, Israel still disrupting Tehran’s takeover efforts

But Iran and Hezbollah are still highly active in Syria—and elsewhere.

Despite considerable success for Israel in its shadow war against Tehran’s effort to build a war machine in Syria, the Iranian-led radical axis remains highly active there.

The shadow effort, dubbed the “campaign between the wars” by the Israeli defense establishment, began a decade ago and has seen reports of hundreds of airstrikes on weapons supply runs and efforts to build attack bases by Iran, Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Syria.

On July 3, an airstrike attributed by international media to Israel targeted Aleppo International Airport in northern Syria, causing damage and leading to the facility’s closure.

On June 30, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War released a report stating that the Iranian Quds Force, which is a part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and Hezbollah, established a new military headquarters in Mayadin, eastern Syria. The report also said that Hezbollah began building a military base in Deir ez-Zor, not far from Mayadin.

The base includes weapons depots, a training camp, and residential buildings for pro-Iranian militia fighters and their families. Meanwhile, the Quds Force and Hezbollah also recently reportedly built a new military headquarters and barracks south of Damascus.

Observers describe the efforts as components of a plan to secure weapons smuggling routes in Syria, and to link the routes to the Syrian-held part of the Golan Heights on the Israeli border, and to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Research Division head and former director-general of the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs, told JNS that the campaign between the wars has been largely successful. It prevented a substantial quantity of Iranian weapons from reaching Hezbollah and Iranian-controlled forces in Syria and Lebanon, he said. 

“The campaign’s achievements include weakening the grip of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian Golan Heights region and degrading their ability to attack Israel from Syrian territory,” he said.

“The campaign also succeeded in shaping the rules of the game and thereby enabling broad Israeli freedom of action in Syria,” said Kuperwasser, who is today the director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Iran is giving up on its effort to build a war machine in Syria, he cautioned.

“This is similar to Gazan terror factions that fire rockets at Israel despite Iron Dome intercepting 95% of the projectiles. They see the 5% of rockets that get through as an achievement, and this is how Iran views the weapons supply runs that do get through,” he said. “Iran has motivation to pursue this program. It’s strategic for them.”

Looking ahead, Kuperwasser said that the campaign between the wars is part of a wider Israeli strategic program of disrupting threats from the radical, Iranian-led Shi’ite axis. This includes Hezbollah’s offensive capabilities in all domains, including arming it with precise weapons. “The more these threats increase, the more engagement with these threats could grow at the expense of the campaign between the wars [in Syria],” Kuperwasser said.

Iranian-Shi’ite axis

Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in Herzliya, described the campaign between the wars as a partial success, noting that despite its ability to intercept weapons supplies, the Iranian-Shi’ite axis has nevertheless been able to make progress in infiltrating Syrian military infrastructure and airports.

“Iran is also pursuing a long-term civilian-demographic goal of moving Shi’ites, mainly militia members and their families, from Iraq and Afghanistan to what were once Sunni areas of Syria,” said Karmon.

Iran also wishes to convert Syria’s Alawites to Shi’ite Islam so that they develop full allegiance to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei [and his eventual successor],” he said.

During the years of the shadow campaign, Israel knocked out around half of the Assad regime’s surface-to-air systems due to their attacks on the Israel Air Force, Karmon assessed. As a result, Iran has begun efforts to supply Syria with its own locally produced air defense system, dubbed Bavar 373.

Meanwhile, Karmon noted, despite growing cooperation with Moscow, Iran sees a new opportunity to deepen its hold on Syria due to the reallocation of Russian military forces to Ukraine. This development together with the lack of confidence that the Iranian establishment has in the Kremlin contributed to quiet tensions between Moscow and Tehran, he argued.

Previous Russian assurances that Iranian-axis forces would not move within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the Syrian-Israeli border have proven to be highly unreliable, Karmon noted, adding that Iran has been able to dodge to some degree Israel’s intelligence community and still smuggle considerable quantities of missiles, UAVs and other capabilities to its proxies in Syria.

“Hezbollah has an important role in Syria, where it has learned military lessons,” he added.

The lack of Israeli responses to Hezbollah’s growing provocations from Lebanon since July 2020 is fueling the Islamist group’s confidence, Karmon said.

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