Quarterly Updates for (16 Aug 2017 — 15 Nov 2017)

The Israeli govt.’s discontent with last quarter’s U.S- and Russia-backed cease-fire in southwestern Syria, which went into effect on 7/9 (see JPS 47 [1]), persisted throughout the quarter. It manifested in repeated IDF strikes on Hezbollah targets and other sites affiliated with the Syrian govt. and in an increasingly energetic diplomatic campaign against Iran’s influence in Syria.

The IDF carried out a handful of highprofile strikes on Hezbollah forces and Syrian govt.-controlled sites in the opening weeks of the quarter. On 9/7, the Israeli Air Force bombarded a chemical weapons plant nr. Masyaf, killing 2 people and damaging at least 5 major buildings, according to the international press. The attack, which was much more destructive than earlier Israeli operations, prompted a response from both Hezbollah and the Lebanese govt. On 9/9, Lebanon’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced plans to file an “urgent complaint” against Israel at the UN Security Council (UNSC), contending that Israeli planes violated Lebanese air space. Hezbollah, for its part, reportedly sent backchannel messages to Israel expressing a desire not to escalate hostilities in the wake of the strikes. However, Israeli forces launched another assault on 9/22, this time targeting a site outside Damascus International Airport. Later in the quarter, a Syrian antiaircraft battery fired on Israeli jets flying in Lebanese air space (10/16), according to the Lebanese and international news reports. Israeli forces then targeted the battery with an air strike, causing a disputed amount of damage (the IDF said the battery was destroyed, while the Syrian army said it only suffered minor damage). After the exchange, the Syrian army warned (10/16) Israel of “dangerous consequences” should Israeli forces continue their forays into Syria.

Amid the escalating tension over Israel’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, there were numerous reports of increasing Iranian involvement in s. Syria. These reports, which detailed alleged Iranian plans to build an airfield nr. Damascus where its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) could establish a more formal presence, played to Israeli govt. fears about Iran’s intentions in the region and lent credence to complaints about the 7/9 cease-fire (see JPS 47 [1]), with Iranian statements underscoring the tension. On a visit to Damascus on 10/18, Iranian gen. Mohammad Baqeri said, “We are in Damascus to assert and coordinate and cooperate to confront our common enemies, the Zionists and terrorists.” Furthermore, the Associated Press reported (9/23) that the Iranian govt. and Hezbollah were working together to broker a rapprochement between Hamas and the Syrian govt., its former patron (Hamas was based in Syria until the outbreak of war in 2011).

Two bouts of cross-border violence ratcheted up tensions even more. On 10/19, a mortar fired from inside Syria landed in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, causing no damage or injuries. Israeli tanks then fired (10/19) on a Syrian army position nr. the Israeli-occupied town of Qunaytra. Two days later, 5 projectiles fired from s. Syria landed in an open area in n. Israel, again causing no damage or injuries. The IDF then shelled 3 Syrian army targets nr. the border area. “Even if this is just spillover, this is an exceptional incident and the continuance of such events will be met with a more fierce Israeli response,” the IDF said (10/21). The Syrian govt. filed a complaint with the UN, accusing the Israelis of coordinating with local “terror groups.” In an unusual escalation, Israeli DM Lieberman accused (10/23) Hezbollah of perpetrating the 10/21 attack. Later, Israeli defense sources said (10/23) that they could not certify Lieberman’s claim. “The remarks reflect the minister’s best judgment,” one official said.

Meanwhile, the Israelis were appealing to both the U.S. and Russia to alter the terms of the 7/9 cease-fire so as to marginalize Iran and its allies, to little avail. On 11/11, meeting on the sidelines of an economic conference in Da Nang, Vietnam, U.S. pres. Trump and Russian pres. Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement. They reaffirmed the 7/7 agreement that had resulted in the 7/9 cease-fire, decided to “maintain open military channels of communication,” agreed to continue their efforts “until the final defeat of ISIS is achieved,” and, in the closest provision to a concession to the Israeli position, they called for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination, of foreign forces and foreign fighters” in Syria.

With conflicting reports and wide-ranging speculation surrounding the statement, it was unclear exactly what such a reduction would entail. Some reports stated it applied to Iranian-backed groups. Others suggested those groups would have to shift positions. One Israeli official said what had been agreed was that the groups in question would be permitted to maintain positions as close as 5–7 km from the border with Israel. “Even though we view favorably the agreement on the need to eliminate the foreign forces— namely, the Iranian forces, Hezbollah and the [Shi‘ite] militias from the area, the test will be on the ground, not in words but in deeds,” Israel’s intelligence minister Yisrael Katz commented (11/13). That same day, Netanyahu said that the IDF would continue operating in Syria “in accordance with our security needs” and with “the right combination of firmness and responsibility.” As a U.S. delegation arrived (11/14) in Israel for talks on the TrumpPutin statement and the future of Iran-backed groups in Syria, Russian FM Sergey Lavrov responded to Netanyahu. Iran had a “legitimate” presence in Syria, he said, and Russia would not commit to the removal of Iranian forces or Iran-backed groups.