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Iran withdrawing from Syria, says Israeli official

What happened: A senior Israeli security official said yesterday that “for the first time since Iran first entered Syria, it is now reducing its troop numbers and is evacuating bases”. The official added: “Syria has been paying a rising price for the Iranian presence in its territory, for a war that isn’t its own. Iran has gone from being an asset to a liability for Syria. Israel will ramp up the pressure on Iran until its departure from Syria.”

  • In the last two weeks there have been at least five attacks on Iranian targets in Syria, though Israel has not taken formally taken responsibility. Targets have included storage facilities south of Homs and bunkers near the Damascus airport. In mid-April an Israeli drone reportedly attacked a Hezbollah vehicle in Syria close to the Lebanese border. The operatives in the vehicle abandoned it shortly before it was destroyed.
  • Most recently, on Monday there was an attack on the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), near Aleppo, which is used by the military industry for advanced weapons systems and missile production. Syrian sources claimed 14 people understood to be Iranian and Iraqi fighters were killed in the strike.
  • Following the attack, Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said: “We are determined, very determined, and I’ll tell you why. For Iran, Syria is a distant adventure that is 1,000 kilometres from home. For us it’s about life. We are far more determined. Iranian soldiers who arrive on Syrian soil and operate there are putting themselves at risk. They are endangering their own lives. They are paying with their lives and will continue even more so. We will not give in and we will not allow a forward Iranian base to be established in Syria.”
  • Israel has also noted a significant drop in the past six months in the number of cargo flights that are used to smuggle weapons from Iran to Syria. One reason is due to the coronavirus pandemic and the requirement of using airplanes to transport medical aid instead of weaponry.

Context: Former Israeli army Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot developed a doctrine called the ‘campaign between the wars’ that has guided Israel’s strategy in Syria over the last four years. In that time, Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria.

  • The majority of the attacks attributed to Israel have target military infrastructure, bases and facilities manufacturing Hezbollah’s precision missile programme, which are transported from Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon through Syria.
  • Israeli defence sources claim that Syrian President Bashar Assad understands that Iran has become a liability and that he pays a high price for their presence. The Syrian army is still trying to rehabilitate itself following the long civil war, and it has also been harmed in these attacks with particular damage to its defence systems and anti-aircraft batteries.
  • Iranian backed militias have long been entrenched in Aleppo, where they have a command centre, military bases and stored advanced weapons. The SSRC is also a suspected site where the Syrians are continuing to develop chemical weapons with the help of Iranian researchers.
  • The Iranians are currently suffering significant setbacks since the US killed IRGC Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani in January. More recently, the crash in oil price has further weakened their economy as well as the continuation of the severe US sanctions. In addition, the coronavirus has compounded socio-economic hardship and civilian unrest.

Looking ahead: Israel appears to be taking advantage of a weakened Iran. According to Alex Fishman, the security analyst for Yediot Ahronot: “This is a strategic opportunity, and even if Iran decides to respond—this will give Israel the excuse for a more thorough military operation against it.” However, he also cautions that “the [Israeli] announcement serves to create a dangerous sense of self-satisfaction, which is liable to produce complacency and erroneous preconceptions.” There is also concern that a miscalculation could lead to attacks on Israel and a wider military conflict with both Iran and Hezbollah.

  • Overall, Syria is not Iran’s top priority right now. Analysts suggest they will wait till November and see who is elected president of the US before formulating their response to US sanctions and attacks to their infrastructure in Syria.