Russia's Withdrawal From Syria Is an Opportunity for Israel | Opinion

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz revealed details about the largest Israel Defense Force (IDF) drill in recent years last week. The drill included simulated airstrikes on Iran and a simulated multi-front war against Iran-backed proxies in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. The message was unmistakable: The Israeli government is weighing its military options, and the military is readying for whatever the government decides. Iran should be worried.

Right now, however, all eyes are on Syria. The war in Ukraine has prompted Russia to redeploy some forces and hardware out of Syria, where it has been buttressing the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad. As the Russians depart, the Iranians want to fill the void.

The Israelis are determined not to let that happen. The Syrian-Israeli border, as well as key bases and facilities in Syria, have witnessed significant clashes in recent years. The Iranian regime continues to build its capabilities to target Israel from this war-torn territory. And Israel continues to erode those capabilities.

One of the most dramatic incidents occurred in 2018, when an armed Iranian drone crossed into Israel. The drone was dispatched from T4 Air Base in Syria. The IDF shot it down, then launched one of the largest military operations in Syria in decades.

Such clashes, along with other incidents across the Middle East and even in Iranian territory, are part of the new reality in the region. Israel calls it the "war between wars." It's a campaign to damage Iran's capabilities in Lebanon, Syria, and anywhere the Islamic Republic is preparing to wage war against Israel.

Once upon a time, Israel only targeted Tehran's proxies when they attacked first. But Israel's leaders understand this is no longer viable, particularly in Syria, where Iran appears determined to establish offensive capabilities on Israel's doorstep.

Israel is also operating against Iranian smuggling of what they call "game-changing weapons," a euphemism for precision guided munitions (PGMs). Israel is tracking PGM parts, production machines, and anything else that might contribute to independent PGM production.

With Iran's guidance, Hezbollah has been manufacturing PGMs or converting older rockets into PGMs. Reports suggest that Hezbollah is assembling PGMs in underground facilities in Lebanon, producing a few PGMs per day.

The Russian departure from Syria is now a danger and an opportunity for Israel. The Iranians clearly seek to fill the void in key territory that Russia vacates. But such plans are predictable and transparent. Israeli military operations can potentially force the Iranians out. Indeed, without the Russians and their advanced air defense systems, the Israeli Air Force should have significantly more freedom to maneuver.

Israel/Syria border
A picture shows an Iron Dome defence system battery, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, and Israeli military vehicles stationed near the border with Lebanon in the Israeli annexed Golan Heights on February 18, 2022. - Israel's military said its air defences fired at an unmanned aerial vehicle that had crossed into its airspace today, the second such incident in as many days. JALAA MAREY/AFP via Getty Images

After years of careful deconfliction with the Kremlin driven by the fear of accidentally targeting Russian jets in the skies over Syria or Russian troops on the ground, the IDF can now press its advantage. With the Russians focused on Ukraine, the number of Israeli operations in Syria has reportedly already increased and will likely only intensify.

Even the Assad regime, which would have lost power without Iranian and Russian intervention, may welcome an intensifying Israeli campaign; the Iranian regime has overstayed its welcome in Syria, violating the country's sovereignty and encumbering its diplomatic ties to the Arab world. Indeed, several pragmatic Arab states are in favor of jettisoning Iranian forces from Syria in an effort to stabilize the region after years of tumult.

But even if Israel drives Iran out of Syria, Hezbollah's PGM production in Lebanon remains a threat Israel cannot ignore. The rules of engagement until now have been such that Israel has mostly avoided striking inside Lebanon. That may need to change, particularly as the estimated stockpile of these weapons—estimated in the hundreds presently—continues to grow.

A war against Hezbollah is one that Israel has long avoided to prevent widespread damage, but it would be far worse for Lebanon, which is currently writhing in political and economic crises. Hezbollah understands that a destructive war in Lebanon will hurt its own image, not to mention its capabilities.

Israel's message now should be tailored not only to Hezbollah but to the regime in Teheran. In 2009, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei directed his military to invest heavily in PGMs, knowing they would enable the regime or its proxies to strike Israeli targets within 10 feet of their intended mark. The IDF has declared PGM's to be Israel's second most dire threat, subordinate only to Iran's nuclear program. Through the "war between wars," Israel's message has been one of action, not words.

Successive U.S. administrations have looked the other way while Israel has targeted Iranian smuggling and military activity in Syria. But if the United States signs the deeply-flawed looming nuclear deal with Iran, the massive sanctions relief that Iran receives would be a boon to Iran's military efforts.

Between Russia's departure, Lebanon's crisis, and the recent snag in the nuclear negotiations, Israel may have a short window of opportunity to significantly reduce the Iranian threat in Syria and PGM production infrastructure in Lebanon. This can be aided with political and diplomatic assistance from Washington. Barring such assistance, Israel can be expected to act alone.

Brigadier General (Res.) Professor Jacob Nagel is a former Israeli national security adviser to PM Netanyahu (Acting). He is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion Aerospace Faculty. Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at FDD, and a former terrorism finance analyst at the United States Department of the Treasury.

The views in this article are the writers' own.