OPINION: Iran Has Been Abandoned by Russia and Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) REUTERS

By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, Asharq Al-Awsat Newspaper

Israel will not rest until it has driven all Iranian military forces out of Syria, Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has pledged.

“We are constantly working to raise the stakes for Iran until we reach our goal: removing them from Syria,” Mr. Bennett was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as saying on Feb. 11. “We will continue to prevent an Iranian presence on our northern border.”

“For generations, we have constantly been fighting the arms of the Iranian octopus in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza, and we have not focused enough on the weakening of Iran itself,” Bennett said “We are in a continuous campaign to weaken the Iranian octopus on the economic, political, intelligence, military, and other levels.”

“As long as you keep trying to build terrorist bases there, we will only increase the strikes against you,” Bennett warned Iran. “We are constantly working at this and will make them pay a high price.”

Bennett’s remarks summarize Israel’s strategy of heavy bombardment of Iranian-backed Shia militia groups in Syria for the past two years, which aims to end the Islamic Republic military forces’ occupation of the country.

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While Bennet’s comments are the starkest warnings issued to the Islamic Republic to date, Israel does not wish for a direct military confrontation with Iran. Its main goal is to weaken the Iranian presence in Syria through sustained bombings of the military bases of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Shia militias under its control in that country.

Iranian military and its Shia militia proxies cannot and will not respond to Israel’s massive and devastating airstrikes and firepower. Except for the Russian state media’s lukewarm condemnation of a series of bombing raids on the outskirts of Damascus, Moscow has not objected to Israel’s repeated airstrikes on Iranian military bases in Syria.

Russia is not worried about the Israeli air force pounding Iranian military positions near the capital Damascus, but rather that that a recent airstrike almost caused an accident similar to the inadvertent downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane by an IRGC unit near Tehran’s Khomeini International Airport. That accident on Jan. 8 killed all 176 people on board.

On Feb. 7, the Syrian surface-to-air defense missile system nearly shot down an Iranian Airbus A320 jet carrying 172 passengers as it approached Damascus. Thanks to the quick thinking and experience of the pilot of the Iranian airliner, an emergency landing averted disaster and saved many innocent lives.

It is reasonable to assume that the sustained bombings of the IRGC bases and the downing of two pro-government helicopters by rebel forces in Idlib Province on Feb. 11 and 14 — using American-made surface-to-air missiles — are part of a broader and coordinated effort by Israel and the U.S. to weaken Iranian military presence in Syria.

The assassination of the commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force (IRGC-QF) Lieutenant General Ghasem Soleimani — who died in a targeted U.S. drone strike on the Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3 —  was most likely part of this concerted effort to drive the IRGC-QF and Shia militias out of Syria.

The reckless behavior of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the lack of Russian support for its ally in Syria, namely Iran, pose many questions. It is unclear if any of these developments are related to current clashes between various forces and the Turkish military on Syria’s northern borders. Syria and Russia have deserted their ally Iran and left it at the mercy of Israel and the U.S.

Military activities on the northern borders of Syria are part of the campaign to resolve the refugee crisis and deal with armed groups backed by Iran and Turkey. Driving Iranian forces out of Syria is the most crucial issue for Israel and the U.S. The Iranian regime will not, however, leave Syria without a fierce and bloody fight. Defeating Islamist militia groups backed by the Islamic Republic and Turkey will pave the way for resolving the Syrian crisis.

Moscow and Damascus seem to believe that Tehran’s role in Syria has ended. Iran and Russia worked together to ensure the survival of Assad’s regime. To become a member of the international community again, Syria must distance itself from the Islamic Republic. By ending Iran’s influence in Syria, Russia will also tighten its grip over the country.

While Russia considers Syria a satellite in its orbit, the Iranian regime has a broader plan that includes turning the country into another Lebanon and using it as a military base to threaten Israel. Having a presence in Syria also helps Tehran to expand its influence in Iraq and the entire region.

Forcing Iran out of Syria will hand a victory to Israel and the U.S. It will also diminish Tehran’s influence in Lebanon and Iraq, but it will not be easy to achieve this goal.

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]