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STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT. The December announcement by President Donald Trump that the 2,000 U.S. forces in eastern Syria would be withdrawn has upended Israel’s strategy to roll back Iran’s extensive military and militia presence in Syria. Israeli leaders had been counting on their own close relations with President Trump and his aides, as well as on the hardline anti-Iran orientation of President Trump’s national security team, to prevail on the president to keep U.S. troops in Syria indefinitely.
However, the Israelis and Trump’s advisors were unable to convince the president that keeping the 2,000 troops in Syria—who are mostly supporting the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces—would provide additional benefits beyond those already achieved. The administration’s view is that the so-called Islamic State has largely been defeated and that the residual U.S. force was too small to influence either Iran or Russia to compel the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to yield power. U.S. troops in Syria lack the rules of engagement or even the congressional authority to go on the offense against Iranian installations in Syria, although they are permitted to defend themselves.
President Trump appears to calculate that supporting Israel’s attacks on Iranian infrastructure in Syria is more likely to influence Iran’s behavior than maintaining a U.S. military presence in the country. Moreover, the announced U.S. withdrawal has already caused Israel to adjust its approach toward combatting the Iranian military presence in Syria, which Israel asserts is unacceptable and must be rolled back. On January 13, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu abandoned the previous policy of ambiguity by admitting that Israeli jets had attacked Iranian weapons warehouses in Syria two days prior.
On January 20, Israel launched a barrage of strikes in response to a surface-to-surface missile that was launched from Damascus toward the northern part of the Golan Heights, disputed territory held by Israel. In addition to acknowledging that Israel had struck Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah targets in Syria ‘hundreds of times’ over the past few years, Netanyahu stated, ‘The accumulation of recent attacks proves that we are more determined than ever to take action against Iran in Syria, just as we had promised.’
In addition to operating more openly against Iran in Syria, it is virtually certain that Israel will expand its attacks there to compensate for Jerusalem’s loss of leverage following the U.S. pullout. Netanyahu undoubtedly assesses that he will have unconditional U.S. backing for a more aggressive approach against Iranian targets in Syria. U.S. officials have consistently asserted that Israel, in conducting strikes on Iranian positions in Syria, has the right to defend itself and has full U.S. support in doing so. The United States has committed to resupplying Israel with precision-guided munitions and intelligence needed to attack hardened Iranian targets in Syria, which reportedly include rocket factories and other weapons manufacturing sites.
At the same time, Israeli leaders are likely to exercise caution in order not to strike any Russian targets in Syria. Russian-Israeli relations, previously cordial, as both understood each other’s core goals in Syria, deteriorated in September 2017 after a Russian military plane was shot down by Syrian forces in an errant response to an Israeli airstrike.
A key question is whether an expansion of Israel’s bombing campaign in Syria will result in a broader Israel-Iran war, one that might potentially draw in Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, as well as the United States and other actors in the region. The U.S. withdrawal will also directly impact the strategic calculations of Turkey and the Gulf states, as leaders from Ankara to Riyadh will seek to position themselves to take advantage of the impending power vacuum in northern Syria. Still, Israel’s strategy going forward will be the most proactive.
Israeli strikes, even if increased in frequency or intensity, are unlikely to force Iran to withdraw from Syria, but are also unlikely to provoke a wider conflict. Iran’s political and military decision-makers, including leaders of the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, have always stopped short of actions that would lead to hostilities with more capable conventional powers such as Israel or the United States. Iran has instead employed a regional strategy dependent on the formation and backing of proxy militias, which give Tehran a measure of deniability for its actions and keep territorial Iran devoid of major conventional combat (TSC)