- - Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Lost in the flood of reporting on the Trump impeachment and COVID-19 are critical Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets eastern Syria, carried out with intelligence provided by the United States.

A series of such strikes over the past several months have significantly slowed down Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, which is important not only to Israeli and U.S. interests, but those of Syria as well.

Israel has struck more than 500 Iranian targets in Syria recently in addition to multiple clandestine missions against those involved in terrorist operations. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have repeatedly said Israel will not allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria, vowing to do everything to prevent it.

The new strikes on eastern Syria targeted Iranian arms depots, as well as components linked to Iran’s nuclear program. An Israeli attack last Tuesday targeted warehouses in Syria being used in a pipeline to store and stage Iranian weapons and also served as a pipeline for components that support Iran’s nuclear program.

Also noted is that these airstrikes were carried out with intelligence provided by the U.S. following a meeting between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Israeli Mossad head in Washington at Cafe Milano — a rare incidence of publicized cooperation between the two countries over choosing targets in Syria

Here Israel’s strikes hit the areas of Deir al-Zur and Abu Kamal close to Syria’s border with Iraq including 18 sites of pro-Iranian militias. This is not new, as Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked military targets in Syria over the years but rarely acknowledges such operations.

These strikes came amid rising tensions and concerns that Iran might carry out attacks to avenge last year’s killing of one of its top commanders, Gen. Qassem Soleimani. There is also the ongoing problem of Iranian entrenchment on Israel’s northern frontier as a red line, where Iranian facilities and weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah have been located. Prior strikes have served to at least slow down Iran’s entrenchment in Syria which actually represent an ongoing threat to Syria as well as Israel.

During the Syrian civil war, which has been going on for the past decade, the Syrian regime was rescued by external support from Iran, as well as Russia and Hezbollah who provided forces and equipment to combat over a dozen rebel groups seeking to overthrow the Assad government. With that war largely over, Bashar Assad wants the Iranians and Hezbollah gone. ISIS, which had set up their own “state” within Syria has been vanquished. For their part, Russia wants continued use of Syrian port facilities and an air base, which are acceptable to Syria and Israel alike.

Relations between Syria and Israel throughout this war were certainly strained, to say the least, but Israel did not become actively involved as a combatant. Throughout the conflict Israel provided covert medical support to Syrians injured in the Golan Heights area with whom they had enjoyed good relations for some four decades under the 1974 disengagement agreement.

The presence of the Iranians, Hezbollah and other rebel forces in this area brought limited hostilities in a peaceful area and was of great concern to Israel. With these hostile forces now mostly gone from the Golan, Israel is seeking a return to the peaceful co-existence that prevailed since 1974. By most reports continued Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets within Syria are designed to avoid actual Syrian facilities and population. Little wonder they are not denounced in the Syrian press.

Preparing for the incoming Biden administration, the Israeli military is reportedly developing three options to undermine Iran’s nuclear efforts or, if need be, counter Iranian aggression. Defense Minister Gantz has been quoted as saying that “Israel needs to have a military option on the table.” Both Israel’s military and intelligence services have long opposed any direct strike on Iran, which would pose enormous logistical and political difficulties, and have elected to attack Iranian targets outside Iran, such as those in Syria as well as Lebanon and elsewhere.

As the incoming Biden administration tackles the complex Middle East situation it needs to take a serious look at these relationships and their impact. U.S. intelligence support to Israeli operations such as Secretary Pompeo described, remains essential and should not be disturbed. The attacks on Iranian support to regional terrorists and supplies to their nuclear weapons program through Syria are outside the repudiated JCPOA and should not be permitted in any future agreement.

While the incoming Biden team has clearly signaled its intention to resume negotiations with Iran, they are facing a geopolitical and military situation far different from the one left at the end of the Obama administration. Apart from progress toward development of a nuclear weapon and a new generation of ballistic missiles, Iranian involvement in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere has become an essential part of the overall equation. Here the nature and extent of continued support to Israeli efforts to counter Iran in this critical theater will be a key consideration.

It is also too early to tell where the locus of decision-making with respect to Middle East policy will be in the Biden administration. Whether it will be with Jake Sullivan and the new team at the NSC, or Tony Blinken and his State Department remains to be seen. If history is any guide it cannot be both. What is essential is that those who are “in charge” engage with the Israeli leadership as soon as possible so that this aspect of the transition leaves nothing to chance, and the clearest possible message is sent to Iran as to what the red lines are going forward.

• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford and is the author of the forthcoming book “Israel and the Search for Peace.”

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