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'Grave concern' in Israel in light of US positions on Syria
Analysis: Israeli defense officials are concerned after a high ranked delegation sent to Washington failed to secure a promise from the Americans that any agreement to end the war in Syria includes the evacuation of Iran and Hezbollah forces from the country. Now, Israel turns its hopes to the Kremlin.
There is "grave concern" in Israel after a delegation of high ranking Israeli defense officials sent to Washington was not able to secure a commitment from the Americans to ensure any agreement to end the war in Syria would include the evacuation of Iranian military forces from the country.

 

 

During its visit to the American capital, the Israeli delegation met with the heads of the US intelligence community, National Security Council officials and President Donald Trump's envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt.

 

Among the delegation's members were Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) Chief Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, head of the Political-Military Affairs Bureau in the Defense Ministry Zohar Palti (former chief of intelligence for the Mossad), Israel's Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and Deputy National Security Advisor Eitan Ben-David.

 

Israeli security delegation with US delegation
Israeli security delegation with US delegation

 

Israeli intelligence officials said the delegation "presented sensitive, credible and highly disturbing intelligence information," backed by documents and photographs, which showed the ever-growing spread of Iranian influence in Syria.

 

The US and Russia are currently working to formulate an agreement to bring an end to fighting in Syria. Thanks to Russian and American understandings vis-à-vis military coordination between them, there has been a decline in the fighting in Syria since May. Israeli intelligence agencies documented a significant drop both in fighting and in the number of casualties, while jihadist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front appear to be weakening. This situation, Israeli intelligence officials explain, implies there is a strong chance that world powers may reach a final-status agreement.

 

The Israeli defense officials' talks with their American counterparts were described as detailed and professional, while the atmosphere was described as friendly (Greenblatt posted a photo of the participants, without ties or jackets, eating dinner at the home of US National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster.)

 

 

 

Despite these appearances, Israel is still concerned by the prospective agreement since the Americans did not commit to demanding the evacuation of Iranian and Hezbollah forces—allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad—from the country.

 

Israel fears Iran and Hezbollah would exploit the situation to turn Syria into a protected state. The main concern is the deployment of Iranian and Hezbollah forces on the Syrian Golan, on the border with Israel in the space to the southern outskirts of Damascus, in an effort to open another front against Israel if and when an all-out war breaks out.

 

In other words, the fear is that Hezbollah may be able to activate advanced intelligence-gathering methods from inside Syrian territory and entrench within the Golan Heights missile systems which would impose serious difficulties on any Israeli deployments.

 

In the last few decades, Israel has twice fought in Lebanon—first in 1982 and then in 2006—but this time, Israeli intelligence officials have taken to refer to such a war as "The First Northern War," based on the assumption that another war in the north would take place against Hezbollah forces stretching across the northern border, both against Lebanon and Syria.

 

During their meetings, the members of the Israeli delegation stressed to their American counterparts, "We rushed here to warn of the deployment of Hezbollah, Iranian and Syrian forces; to explain exactly what's going on there. Without a significant change in your (the US) position, if you don't become more involved, tougher and more aggressive, you will leave the Middle East to the Iranians, under Russian auspices."

 

The delegation members, who returned to Israel over the weekend, reported they noticed "a kind of embarrassment and lack of a clear position in the American administration with regards to the nature of the future agreement and disagreements on what should and what should not be done in Syria to bring quiet to the entire region. As far as they're concerned, the matter is still wide open."

 

Hezbollah artillery on Syrian-Lebanese border (Photo: Reuters) (Photo: Reuters)
Hezbollah artillery on Syrian-Lebanese border (Photo: Reuters)
 

 

Israeli officials are concerned that because of the domestic issues beleaguering President Trump and the crisis with North Korea, the United States might decide not to flex its muscles too much in Syria, fold, and leave it at the mercy of Russia, the Assad regime, Iran and Hezbollah.

 

Israel plans to send a similar delegation to the Kremlin in an effort to convince Russian President Putin to stop the spread of Iranian influence in Syria as part of the upcoming agreement.

 

For years now, Hezbollah has been working to save the Assad regime, part of the Gordian knot between the Syrian president, the Lebanese-based organization and Iran. Hezbollah has taken huge losses as a result of its involvement. According to Israel’s latest count, the terror group has suffered 1,800 deaths and 5,000 wounded, a fact that has delivered a heavy blow to the morale and motivation to join the group’s ranks.

 

Israeli intelligence evaluations conclude that from Hezbollah’s viewpoint, if it can succeed in permanently gaining a foothold in Syria and establish a network of fortifications and intelligence bases along the Syrian border with Israel on the Golan Heights, it would serve as a kind of ‘compensation’ for the losses suffered in the country.

 

At present, the Iranian military forces deployed across Syria include some 500 Iranian soldiers, some 5,000 Hezbollah fighters and several thousands fighters from Shiite militias from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. These forces operate as part of a special corps of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), which was established to fight in Syria. This corps is under the command of the elite Quds Force, which is responsible for the IRGC's foreign operations.

 

The omnipotent commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, spends a lot of his time in Syria and considers increasing Iranian influence there to be his primary mission. These days he's working on a special project: Building a separate terminal reserved for Iran and Hezbollah at the Tartus Port.

 

President Assad (Photo: EPA)
President Assad (Photo: EPA)

 

According to Israeli assessments, Iran and its Shiite allies' strength and influence in Syria would increase exponentially if the US and Russia fail to do anything to end Iranian presence in the country. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has already started creating infrastructure for intelligence collection in the Golan.

 

The operations in Syria have been underway since the beginning of 2016 with coordination between Soleimani and Mustafa Badreddine, the brother-in-law and successor of the former senior Hezbollah member Imad Mughniyah, who was killed by the Mossad in Damascus in 2008.

 

A separate compound was built not far from the Damascus International Airport. It is heavily guarded and served as the intelligence headquarters of Iran and Hezbollah.

 

Badreddine was a daring, wild and extreme arch-terrorist whose loyalty to Hezbollah was never in doubt. But he liked to indulge in the luxuries of life, and therefore acquired property and traded in gold and precious stones. He studied at university, maintained contact with numerous women and lavished his family with expensive gifts.

 

He quickly made his way to the top spot of most wanted list of the International Court of Justice, which was formed to arraign the defendants in the assassination of Christian leader Rafic Baha El Deen Al Hariri.

 

Badreddine also began operating in Syria without coordination with, or approval of, the Iranians. Moreover, he even suggested a number of ideas that were considered too extreme even by their standards. With the passage of time, his property empire declined as his problems increased. On May 13 Qasem Soleimani met with him in the compound near the airport. A short while after, Badreddine was was found with several bullets in his head.

 

Netanyahu and Putin meet in Moscow (Photo: Reuters) (Photo: Reuters)
Netanyahu and Putin meet in Moscow (Photo: Reuters)

 

Soleimani and Hassan Nasrallah realized that their senior commander could no longer be trusted and, fearing that he may open his mouth in The Hague, saw it fit to have him taken out permanently. With Badreddine now fully out of the picture, room was made for the ascendancy of his deputy Talal Hamiyah.

 

According to Israeli assessments, Iran and its Shiite allies' strength and influence in Syria would increase exponentially if the US and Russia fail to do anything to end Iranian presence in the country. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has already started creating infrastructure for intelligence collection in the Golan.

 

In light of the stuttering by the Americans, Israeli officials said this week that "Israel, in any case, maintains its right to defend itself."

 

Ronen Bergman, a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at Yedioth Ahronoth and a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and, is the author of the forthcoming “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.”​

 

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