A handout photo released on May 1 by the official Syrian news agency Sana shows damage in Homs from what the Syrian government called an accident involving ammunition at a military base, but which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described as Israeli air strikes on a Hizbullah arms depot. (Sana/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s Bennett Vows to Push Iran from Syria

Analyst calls reports of Israeli strikes ‘credible,’ though they are now ‘less aggressive’

Iran has been lowering its profile in Syria in recent months, an Israeli analyst said after outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told local news media that his country’s archenemy was withdrawing its forces from Syria.

Israeli defense analyst Amir Oren told The Media Line that Iran has “been less aggressive lately.”

“On one hand, they have somewhat lessened their activities. They have redeployed some of their forces away from the North to other places in Syria, or even outside Syria, as Israel has stepped up its operations against them,” he said.

Bennett told Israeli media that Israel will continue its operations in Syria and will not rest until Iranian forces stationed there leave. Israel certainly will not let Iran move its forces close to its border, he said.

The Islamic Republic is “trying to establish itself on the border with Israel to threaten Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa,” the defense minister said. “They have to leave Syria…. Iran has nothing to do in Syria… [and] we won’t stop before they leave Syria.”

Bennett made the comments on Tuesday following reports from Syria that Israeli airstrikes on Iranian-backed forces had killed 14 fighters.

Oren said reports of recent Israeli military operations in Syria are “credible.”

Israel rarely takes responsibility for such operations. Since the civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the Jewish state has carried out hundreds of attacks against government troops and Iranian-affiliated fighters, such as Lebanon’s Hizbullah.

Professor Mohammad Marandi, head of the American Studies Department at Tehran University, vehemently denied claims that Iranians had been killed or wounded in Syria.

“These are false claims,” he told The Media Line. “These attacks targeted Syrian forces; they didn’t target Iranian infrastructure…. Can they name a single Iranian killed in the last couple of years? One name. Injured or killed by Israel.”

Marandi says that Iranian forces are in Syria at the “request of the internationally recognized government in Damascus” and that Israel claims it is attacking Iranian fighters “to justify its strikes on Syria and to legitimize its aggression.”

Iran’s economy, already hurt by US sanctions, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and falling oil prices. Israeli officials say the combination of international pressure, Israeli military operations and a shortage of financial resources makes it impossible for the Islamic Republic to afford to stay in Syria.

Iran sent its military into Syria nearly a decade ago to bolster its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, in the country’s civil war. But the assassination by the United States earlier this year of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, dealt a huge blow to the Islamic Republic’s ambitious plans in the region, Oren said.

“They don’t have Soleimani anymore, and they have less money to spend on their proxies and their forces,” he stated.

Jason Brodsky, policy director for United Against Nuclear Iran, said that while Iran might pull forces out of Syria, its support for proxies there will continue. He is “skeptical Tehran is just leaving,” he told The Media Line.

“Iran has made a significant investment in Syria. [Its] militias are still on the ground. For instance, there have been reports in recent weeks of reinforcements from Liwa al-Fatemiyoun being sent to al-Bukamal. That’s not to mention reports of the Iran-backed Baqir Brigade decamping to the outskirts of Aleppo after recent – reportedly Israeli – strikes there,” Brodsky said.

Phillip Smyth, a 2018-2019 Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Media Line that one of the reasons Iran has been in Syria is to achieve “regional domination.”

Iran’s forces are not pulling out of Syria, he said, although they might be redeploying elsewhere in the country.

“No, they are never going to pack up and leave,” Smyth said. “This is a major geopolitical and geostrategic campaign, and a major ideological campaign, and that’s not disappearing tomorrow. And [look at] what they have invested in Syria!”

Iranian troop movements are part of an evolving military plan, he explained.

“A lot of that is just natural progression for how they have been fighting the war. Changing the modus operandi doesn’t mean that they are leaving,” he said. “Nobody seems to be mentioning that there are tons of other proxies’ forces on the ground.”

Far from withdrawing from Syria, he added, Iran is “using a multitude of different strategies to truly dig in and dominate, and if that domination isn’t instantaneous, then they are doing it for the long term.”

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