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Bashar Assad’s dangerous game
By Yoni Ben Menachem
The resumption of the nuclear talks in Vienna between Iran and the world powers does not appear to affect Israel. It continues its actions to curb Iran establishing itself militarily in Syria or transferring advanced weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon.
On December 28, 2021, Syrian media accused Israel of a second attack that month, on the container terminal in Syria’s port of Latakia. The official Syrian news agency, SANA, claimed that the attack was carried out by missiles launched by Israeli Air Force planes flying over the Mediterranean. The commercial container complex in Latakia Port was bombed causing “significant material damage” and fires, Syrian media reported.
Earlier that month, Syria also blamed Israel for attacking Latakia, the largest naval port in the country. Syrian state TV reported on December 7, 2021, that Israel had attacked the port’s container terminal with missiles and claimed that their air defense systems had been activated and intercepted most of the missiles.
The SANA news agency also reported at that time that the attack caused fires in several containers in the port but that there were no casualties. That was the first time Syria accused Israel of attacking the naval port of Latakia, Lebanese commentators said, noting that it was an attack on advanced weapons that came to Syria from Iran for Hizbullah. So far, the Syrians have accused Israel of attacking airports in the country several times and land routes.
Iranian-reserved areas at the Damascus Airport have been frequent targets. On November 24, 2021, Syria accused Israel of attacking targets in the central city of Homs, killing two civilians and wounding six Syrian soldiers.
Foreign officials confirmed the Israeli airstrikes on the port of Latakia, saying sensitive weapons had been delivered by Iran to Syria by sea, such as sensitive components of Hizbullah’s medium-range missile precision project.
This is the 11th attack in the last month-and-a-half that is also intended to send a message to the Syrian president.
Under terms of a Russian-Israeli “deconfliction agreement,” the Russians were updated on the attack shortly before it was carried out. The Russians have large naval and air bases nearby in Hmeimim and Latakia. Syrian sources charge the Russians’ powerful radars and anti-aircraft batteries “did not move,” and anger is being expressed by Syrian commentators.
The city of Latakia is the capital of the Alawite community to which President Bashar Assad belongs.
Israel’s Defense Plan
Israel apparently chooses to attack the shipments from Iran as soon as they reach land in Syria to avoid a naval war with Iran.
The outgoing head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Department, Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, claimed that Israel had succeeded in “preventing the Iranians from trying to take root in Syria.”
In an interview on December 2, 2021, for the Journal of Intelligence and Security Affairs at the Center for Intelligence Heritage, Hayman explained: “We have carried out a great deal of operations and disruptions of the transfer of money and weapons. The highlight of these efforts is preventing the Iranians from trying to take root in Syria.”
However, the attack on the Latakia naval port indicates that there is still much work to be done to prevent Iran’s military build-up in Syria. The Iranians continue the transfer of weapons for Hizbullah by land and air and also by sea. Clearly, President Bashar Assad has not internalized the Israeli message.
Bashar Assad’s Dangerous Game
On December 26, al-Sharq al-Awsat reported that Hizbullah had increased its military presence in the Syrian desert, dozens of kilometers east of the city of Homs. In recent days, dozens of Hizbullah vehicles and a large number of its operatives were seen at five sites and military positions in the area.
Has Iran Overstayed its Welcome in Syria?
In November, the Saudi news channel Al Hadath reported on an unprecedented rift between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran.
According to the report, Assad expelled the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Syria, General Javad Ghaffari, in light of the Iranian general’s activities against the United States and Israel and his corrupt financial issues.
Ghaffari “became a liability,” an official Syrian source told the publication Al-Monitor. “The time has changed, and he still wants to act as per the rules of [the civil] war, when the war is almost over…. he was regarded by the Syrian regime and the Russians as a troublemaker who was not ready to compromise his power and influence for any price.”
According to an Al Hadath source inside the Syrian regime, Damascus expressed outrage at the “over-activity” of the pro-Iranian militias, apparently in operations against the United States and Israel, and claimed that the Iranian general’s conduct violated Syria’s sovereignty.
The source also claimed that the general had admitted to his Syrian counterparts that he had ordered weapons and people to be deployed in places where the Syrian regime had explicitly banned it.
According to the source, the Syrians were outraged by the commerce conducted by the heads of the pro-Iranian militias on the black market in the country. They are taking advantage of Syria’s economic woes and the severe shortage of basic goods in the country, in order to enrich the coffers of the organizations and their commanders.
The source added that the militias used Syria’s natural resources to systematically fill their pockets with money.
Optimism for a Change of Syria’s Orientation Is Premature
Excitement over a Syrian reorientation is premature, with President Bashar Assad unwilling to surrender Iran’s military and economic aid, which had helped him throughout the country’s civil war beginning in 2011.
The assessment at the top of the Syrian regime is that despite the assistance of the Russian military, President Bashar Assad would not last in power without Iranian assistance. He will not forego it.
The Syrian regime relies on Iranian militias to ensure its control over large parts of Syria that are difficult to access, making Iranian militias the tip of the spear for Bashar Assad’s regime.
The Iranians managed to seep into the command ranks of the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division headed by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, who is considered the executive arm of the Iranian agenda in Syria.
Iran has a military and economic stake in Syria and does not intend to leave it to the disappointment of both Israel and Russia who feel that Iranian activity is also harming their interests.
Israel has remarkable achievements in damaging Iran’s military build-up in Syria, but in order to displace Iran from Syria, Israel—and the West — need the cooperation of President Bashar Assad, who does not want to, and even if he were willing, it will be very difficult to break free from the Iranian embrace.
Israeli security officials say that Syrian President Bashar Assad is playing a “dangerous game” by allowing Iran and Hizbullah to continue their military build-up in Syria. Israel will continue to fight this phenomenon with all its might.
According to them, the attacks on the container terminal in Latakia weaken the stature of President Bashar Assad. The port was considered one of the safest strongholds of the Alawite community, but Israeli bombings also undermine its commercial activities, including smuggling and the import of basic commodities.
Israel’s struggle against Iran’s military build-up in Syria appears to be a long one, even though it has great achievements so far.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.