When reports surface of Israeli air strikes on targets in Syria, that's usually a sign that Iran has once again been caught trying to turn Syria into a new war front against Israel.
Reports from recent days therefore suggest that the Islamic Republic is trying to build new attack bases on Syrian soil.
Iran has worked hard the past several years to move precision guided missiles into Syria along with ballistic missiles, explosive drones, and surface-to-surface rockets. It has also blended its weapons production activities into Syria military installations, and tried to set up terror cells on the Syrian border with Israel, for conducting future cross-border raids.
As part of that effort, the Iranian-backed Hizballah has sought to establish a terror network on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights – an initiative the Israel Defense Forces has dubbed the "Golan Terror Network." Led by Ali Musa Daqduq, a senior Hizballah operative and former commander of an elite Hizballah force, the network is a complex and secretive terror infrastructure, highly compartmentalized, which had begun building intelligence-gathering posts near the border and planning attacks on Israel from Syria.
In April, the IDF released a short video showing Luau Ali Ahmad Assad, commander of Syrian Armed Forces 1st Corps, visiting Hizballah positions near the Israeli border. An IDF Arabic-language spokesman said at the time that Hizballah was seeking to build a terror infrastructure Syria to attack Israel and warned that Damascus will be held accountable for any hostilities staged by Hizballah.
Israel has launched several hundred preventive air strikes to torpedo Iran's designs. For the most part, this shadow war has raged just beneath the surface, and both sides have been able to prevent it from sliding into open conflict. But every week carries the potential for a new escalation.
In recent weeks, some voices expressed the hope that Iran is rolling back its operations in Syria, partly in response to determined Israeli action. Iran also faces internal stress caused by the coronavirus crisis and harsh economic realities driven largely by U.S. sanctions.
"Iran is significantly reducing the scope of its forces in Syria and even evacuating a number of bases," outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said last month. "Though Iran has begun the withdrawal process from Syria, we need to complete the work. It's in reach."
Yet such hopes appeared to be premature. Two months after the pandemic's outbreak, it appears that Iran "is returning to its routine conduct" in the region, a report last month from the Meir Amit Center for Intelligence and Terrorism Information stated.
The report said that Iran's regional activities are "reverting to their normal patterns, after several developments during March 2020 indicated that Iran was scaling down its volume of activities across the region, for example, the frequency of transfer of Iranian weaponry to Syria.
Israeli officials signaled that the coronavirus pandemic would not slow any of their active defense operations either.
"Corona has not at all decreased our determination to act against Iranian aggression. I reiterate, Israel will not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons, and will continue to act methodically against Iran's efforts to entrench itself on our borders," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.
On the same day, media reports said 12 people were killed in airstrikes targeting a pro-Iranian militia in eastern Syria's Deir Ezzor region. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog, the Iranian positions were hit with eight airstrikes. They had reportedly been refortified and restocked three days earlier, and munitions and vehicles were destroyed in the strike.
Deir Ezzor is a familiar name to those who track Iranian efforts to build a land corridor that connects Iran and Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. This eastern Syrian region, near the Iraqi border, has been the scene of stubborn and repeated Iranian efforts to smuggle advanced weapons and militia members into Syria by land.
A May 13 report, released by the Israeli ImageSat International civilian satellite company, stated that a new tunnel was being excavated in the Iranian Imam Ali base, in the Syrian town of Albukamal, Deir Azzor, just five kilometers from the Iraqi border. "The construction work has started recently, a few weeks after the last attack on the base [in March 2020]," ImageSat International said.
The tunnel is a few kilometers from an older tunnel, which was attacked by unidentified aircraft earlier this year, prompting construction work on it to be terminated. ImageSat International assessed that "the construction of the new tunnel signifies Iran's commitment to further developing its military presence in this area, despite repeated attacks. The tunnel is fit to be used as a shelter and storage for trucks and vehicles, including vehicles carrying advanced missile weapon systems."
On Friday, reports surfaced of another Israeli strike, this time in the northern Syria area of Masyaf, reportedly killing nine people and causing significant damage.
Reports said the target was Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Center, also known by its French acronym, CERS, a defense facility that is responsible for developing and manufacturing advanced missiles and chemical weapons. CERS also was bombed in 2018 and 2019.
The area surrounding CERS also doubles as a base for Iranian and Iran-controlled militias in Syria.
The strike also comes after concerns have risen in Israel that the Assad regime has relaunched its chemical weapons program.
These developments signify that, contrary to a few optimistic forecasts, Iran's malign activities in Syria are far from disappearing. It seems likely that the Iranian Quds Force, under the leadership of its new chief, Gen. Esmail Qaani, is trying to pick up where the late Qassem Soleimani, assassinated in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad in January, left off.
Qaani may be less charismatic than Soleimani and less able to fire up the rank and file Quds Force members, but he can still build on Soleimani's prior network of radical Shi'ite militias and regional arms smuggling routes to try to turn Syria into an Iranian attack platform against Israel.
Just as Soleimani worked to smuggle missiles, drones, and other weapons into Syria, the recent reports indicate that Qaani is following the same game plan – and running into the same problems that Soleimani did.
Soleimani was also keen on building a network of air defenses, stretching over Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, to challenge Israeli air activities, by deploying surface-to-air missiles throughout the region. But those ambitions still cannot stop the Israel Air Force, which is equipped with advanced F-35 stealth aircraft, as well as electronic warfare systems and precision guided, long-range ordinance.
In the meantime, Iran continues to command some 30,000 militia members on the ground in Syria, alongside the roughly 2,300 Lebanese Hizballah members there. These forces have a double purpose: Help Assad consolidate his victory, particularly in the northern province in Idlib, and plant the seeds of a new front against Israel.
As a result, the potential for confrontation remains very real.
Iran's entrenchment strategy in Syria remains in place, and Supreme Leader Khamenei looks determined to stick to it despite the multiple crises facing him at home.
However, Israel is not Iran's only obstacle in Syria. Russia, Assad's other strategic ally in the war against the Sunni rebels, has set up a long-term air and naval power presence there. Its 49-year lease of the naval base at Tartus, on the Syrian coastline, gives Moscow access to the Mediterranean, and its 49-year lease of Hmeimim airbase also indicates that Russia came to Syria to stay.
This means that Russia can leverage itself as a great power with a foothold in the Middle East. Moscow also wishes to capitalize on lucrative reconstruction programs, and is applying heavy pressure on the Assad regime to not grant such contracts to Iran.
It seems unlikely that Russia will allow Iran to simply take over Syria and upend its Middle Eastern power projection initiative.
These tensions have led Iranian officials to publicly state that the Islamic Republic has invested up to $30 billion in the Syrian war and Assad's victory. It expects to get its money back through reconstruction programs.
Such statements betray Iranian concerns that Assad himself could throw a wrench into Iran's takeover plans, both because of Russian pressure, and because of Israeli warnings about the future of his regime if he fails to do so.
In the meantime, Khamenei also needs to worry about Hizballah's position in Lebanon, which is facing economic collapse and challenges to the Hizballah-led government, including street disturbances in Beirut.
Tehran needs Hizballah to remain strong in Lebanon in order to try and deter Israel from striking Iran's nuclear program – a program that is making alarming progress.
Iran's threat can be understood at two levels – the nuclear program and the country's malign regional activities. At both levels, the Ayatollah's regime has proven that even unprecedented crises at home will not halt its aggressive and dangerous activities. Yet in Syria, at least, Tehran's obstacles are numerous. Iran's dark vision for Syria remains a real threat, but so far it has run into a stone wall.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.