Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a master of political theatre. During a speech at the Munich Security Conference, he held up part of an Iranian drone and asked the Iranian Foreign Minister, seated in the audience, if he recognised it. “You should do, it’s yours,” he said before warning “don’t test us”.
A week earlier, Israel and Iran fought their first direct military confrontation. Iran flew a drone into Israeli airspace; Israel shot it down, destroyed its launcher in Syria and attacked an Iranian base nearby. Israel lost an F-16 to Syrian missiles and in response crippled Syria’s anti-aircraft capability. This dangerous escalation was the latest flashpoint in the lonely battle Israel has fought since 2011 to contain Iranian expansion in Syria. Israel’s message at Munich was clear – amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, Iran is making strategic gains with serious consequences for every country in the region.
While we are focused on the horrific bombardment of Eastern Ghouta and single out the Assad regime as the culprit, we should look closer at what constitutes the Assad war machine. The regime only survived because of a Faustian bargain; Russia provided air power, Iran provided soldiers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force and thousands of ground troops from Hezbollah and Shia militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. BICOM research published today, and featured in the Times newspaper, has identified at least 10 Iranian bases in Syria and more than 35 Shia militias operating in Syria.
Although Israel is the most vocal and active player tackling Iran, Iranian actions destabilise states and fertilise conflict across the region. Iran has a tried and tested model that works with frightening efficiency – build up a proxy Shia militia, support it with weapons and cash, incite sectarian conflict and encourage brutal levels of violence, weaken central Government and transition the militia into a potent political force that no future Government can ignore. They have done this in Lebanon and Iraq and are doing it in Syria.
Three weeks ago I visited an Israeli position on the Golan Heights. The view is a microcosm of the Syrian war. Syrian regime forces made up of Hezbollah, Shia militias and Iranian personnel are positioned close by in Quneitra. They will soon launch an offensive to capture Sunni rebel villages close to the Israeli border. Further south, Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates are in control. On the Lebanese border to the West, Hezbollah, the largest non-state army in the world, has an arsenal of 130,000 missiles and 45,000 active fighters and reserves. Hezbollah flags flutter in the wind just metres from the Israeli border fence; an area the UN is supposed to ensure is patrolled exclusively by the Lebanese army. With Hezbollah and Iranian forces on the border with Syria and Lebanon, Israel faces a nightmare scenario; an Iranian led, unified military front on its entire Northern border.
Israeli officials have been sharing intelligence with allies for months to highlight the extent of Iran’s plans to establish permanent air, land and sea installations in Syria. Israel has carried out more than a hundred strikes in Syria, destroying weapons shipments and chemical weapons bound for Hezbollah. In 2007 Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir Es Zor. It attacked the Damascus CERS facility, a site linked to the 2017 chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, and last year it started targeting Iranian positions. This week satellite photos were published of an Iranian base with missile storage facilities being built close to Damascus, it’s likely that base will soon be targeted.
Two of the most senior figures in the US administration, General McMaster and General Mattis, commanded troops in Iraq and saw first hand the devastating impact of the Iranian militia model as Iraqi Shia militias, supplied and supported by Iran, killed and maimed US troops and bombed Iraqi Sunnis. It is no surprise that Iran, and its regional expansion, featured so prominently in last year’s US National Security Strategy.
The Israeli Prime Minister met US President Donald Trump at the White House last week and urged him to put that strategy into action. One senior Israeli official has complained that: “It is comfortable for the Americans to let us be their sub-contractor against Iran in Syria. But we are very worried.” The US has said it would maintain a military presence in Syria but beyond tough words at the UN, fresh sanctions and the threat to leave the Iran nuclear deal; there has been very little US action against Iran. The head of US Central Command even told the Senate Armed Services Committee that countering Iran ‘is not the coalition’s mission in Syria.’
Despite appearances, the Assad axis is not getting it all their own way. Iran has problems at home and is unable to build support abroad among non-Shia communities. The drone incident was evidence of miscalculation and a symptom of overconfidence and overreach, which begs the question of just how far Iranian influence can effectively stretch. In Syria, Russia’s intervention has been decisive in military terms but has proved unable to seal a deal politically.
Later this year the US and its allies in the anti-ISIS coalition, including Britain, will face a stark choice. As ISIS wanes will we walk away from Syria and leave the field to Iran and its Shia militias? If we do that and fail to properly confront Iran and challenge its actions, we can have no complaints when neighbouring states are destabilised and conflict ensues with all its humanitarian consequences. Neither should we be surprised when those militias nurture the next wave of Islamist terrorists that threaten Europe. At the very least we should wholeheartedly support Israel as it struggles to contain Iran and Hezbollah.
James Sorene is the CEO of BICOM.
Image used with permission of ImageSat International, copyright 2018.