Israel's Syria policy seems to have finally turned a corner. Last week, Israeli warplanes struck the Assad regime and Iranian proxies in Syria with record intensity, hitting five bases in just 72 hours. Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer similarly intensified the rhetoric, telling Politico, “If Iran is not rolled back in Syria, the chances of military confrontation are growing ... by the week.” Privately, Israeli military officials even bemoaned to Al-Monitor that Israel did not work to overthrow Assad years ago.
I have been tracking events in Syria in a professional capacity for the past five years, and I have indeed supported Israeli military action against Assad since 2012. Because Israel did not intervene against Assad and focused exclusively on the Golan for too long, events have played out as I've feared. Iranian proxy militias are empowered after turning major Syrian protest centers first into ghost towns, and then into pro-Iran military bases. The Hezbollah threat has multiplied, as much larger Iraqi and Afghani versions of Hezbollah have emerged with Assad victories in Syria.
It is time to stop minimizing this threat or treating Syria as a side issue. Israel held its largest war games in 20 years this September to prepare for a possible Iranian attack from the north.
Yet I fear that even now, Israel and its supporters are not fully attuned to the threat. For one thing, DebkaFile reported that last week's strikes were an Israeli effort to thwart a new Assad-Iranian offensive toward the Golan. But Assad has been attacking rebels in the Hermon Mountains of the Golan for months. His forces made their first major gains in the area this week despite the strikes. If the DebkaFile report is correct, then the Israeli strikes failed in their objective.
Some Israeli military officials also claim that the threat is limited to Iranian missile bases in Syria. While technically true, this misses the forest for the trees. Iranian missile bases emerge in areas where Assad forces are in firm control. These bases are shored up by Iran-backed sectarian cleansing, which allows Iranian proxies in Syria to recreate the favorable environment that has helped Hezbollah stay resilient in south Lebanon.
In short: Where the Assad regime wins on the battlefield, Iranian missile bases will follow. The longer Israel waits to roll back Assad and Iran, the harder it will be to remove the bases later. “Mowing the grass” in Syria by only striking bases when they emerge will yield temporary gains that diminish with time.
Israel and its supporters in the U.S. need a more proactive policy toward the Syrian conflict that recognizes Assad military gains for what they are — a threat to Israel, perhaps the greatest threat today — and responds accordingly.
Supporting and advocating for the SDF, America's Kurdish-dominated anti-ISIS partner in Syria, would help somewhat. It would prevent the SDF from falling into Iranian arms (there are Assad regime offices and Iranian agents in SDF areas) while preventing Assad and Iran from fully focusing on Israel. But at the end of the day, Syrian Kurds live in northern and eastern Syria, and the Israeli-Syrian border is in Syria’s southwest. Furthermore, Syrian Kurds rarely fight Assad and have little interest in events outside Kurdish-majority areas. There are both geographical and ideological limits to a Kurdish alliance.
I believe Israel's efforts to roll back Iran will succeed based on whether, and how soon, Israel enters a genuine alliance with anti-Assad rebels in southern Syria. In contrast to northern Syria, most rebels in the south are still pro-democracy. Better yet, they were behind the most recent successful anti-Assad offensive. Because they control the vast majority of the Syrian Golan, they can serve as a real buffer if not an attack force against Iran.
They can only do this, however, if they receive increased support soon, before Iranian proxies in Syria grow too strong for them to withstand. To this end, Israel should hit front-line positions on behalf of the southern rebels now, and American supporters of Israel should make U.S. support to the southern rebels a greater priority. Without decisive action, even the recent Israeli airstrikes might be too little, too late.
By Shlomo Bolts
Shlomo Bolts works at the Syrian American Council, a grassroots organization of pro-democracy Syrian Americans.