Keeps a Wary Eye on Iranian Entrenchment as Syrian Border Crossing Reopens
By Yaakov Lappin
October 24, 2018
The recent reopening of a border crossing between Israel
and Syria holds the hope of stability as the Syrian war draws to a close. But if
Iran, Hizballah, and allied radical Shi'ite militias have their way, Syria will
be hijacked and turned into a radical Iranian power projection base. Any hopes
for stability would then give way to destabilizing conflict, terrorism, and new
threats to Israel and Jordan.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced
last week that the Quneitra border crossing between Israel and Syria, shut down
in 2014, is back in operation.
Before the Syrian civil war's outbreak, members of the
Golan Heights Druze community – which identifies itself as Syrian, unlike the
Israeli-Druze community – used the crossing to attend family celebrations in
next-door Syria, export apples, and to study at Syrian universities.
The border crossing also served as a key access point for
the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), tasked with trying to
help keep the border region peaceful, and help Israel and Syria maintain their
All of that fell apart during the bloody years of the
Syrian war. The Assad regime's sovereignty in southern Syria, like many other
areas of the country, collapsed, the UN fled, and armed groups overran the area.
Some parts of southern Syria came under the control of
extremist Islamic State-affiliated forces, while other areas were ruled by more
moderate Sunni groups. Other pockets of land were held by the Assad regime, with
the assistance of pro-regime militias that Iran helped to set up and arm.
Now, southern Syria is officially back under Assad's
control, and the UN is returning to the border. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has
retaken the area, and this has allowed Israel to reopen the Quneitra crossing.
These developments suggest a new stability, but the reality isn't as simple as
putting the chess pieces back in their original positions. The Syria of 2018 –
or what is left of it – is not the country that it was before the war, for it
has been thoroughly infiltrated by Iran and its proxies.
Iran has played a major role in the war that led to an
estimated 500,000 deaths, and which displaced half of all Syrians, most of them
Sunnis. Now that Iran's client, the Assad regime, has emerged as the victor,
Tehran is looking to 'cash in its chips,' and build itself a war machine in
One of Iran's goals is to set up a network of terrorist
cells to attack Israel from southern Syria. Such cells would be able to attack
with border bombs, shoulder-fired missiles, ballistic rockets, and cross-border
raids. They could aim for both Israeli military and civilian targets. It is a
goal that Iran has already tried to realize in the past, and
failed. Iran has also tried to build missile bases, drone bases, weapons
production sites, and other installations throughout Syria, an
effort that was thwarted by Israel. Iran has flooded Syria with militant
Shi'ite militias that it recruited from across the Middle East, trained, and
armed, giving it access to its own army.
Throughout the war, Syria became an active Iranian military
zone. Assad's role was essentially reduced to granting Tehran permission to
further entrench itself. Assad had little choice in the matter, as the Iranian
assistance he received on the ground, combined with Russia's air power, saved
his regime from destruction.
Hizballah – Iran's forward division in Lebanon –
remains active throughout Syria as well. Although Hizballah has begun
withdrawing forces back to Lebanon, its chief, Hassan Nasrallah, recently
signaled that some of his personnel will be remaining in Syria. "No one can
force us out of Syria," Nasrallah
said in September. "We will stay there until further notice."
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), together
with its international operations unit, the Quds Force, are also staying put.
They have played a critical role in assisting the return of Assad's army to
southern Syria. The IRGC has planned operations and injected Iranian-controlled
militias into the SAA's offensive.
Israeli defense sources have confirmed the presence of
embedded Shi'ite militias among the returning SAA forces.
This year already provided a glimpse into Iran's future
plans for the region. In May, the Quds Force used
a truck-mounted rocket launcher to fire projectiles at Israel, following a
string of reported air strikes against Iranian bases in Syria.
"Numerous reports indicate that the Iranian forces,
Hizballah, and the Shi'ite militias participated in the fighting in southern
Syria dressed in Syrian army uniforms so as to disguise their presence
there," the Middle East Media Research Institute said
in a July report.
to keep Iranian forces 85 kilometers away from the Israeli border does not
appear to be a long-term arrangement on which Israel can depend. Russian
President Vladimir Putin said
last Thursday that it was not up to Russia to convince Iran to pull out of
U.S. lawmakers and security observers have expressed
growing concern over Iran's plan of entrenchment in Syria. The dangers posed
by Iran projecting its radical power onto Syria are becoming increasingly
difficult to ignore.
The wider picture, then, is that Iran's takeover efforts
continue to cast a dark shadow over Syria's future, as well as the security and
stability of the wider region. Jordan is as threatened by the presence of
Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias on its borders as Israel, due to Iran's hostile
intentions toward this pragmatic Sunni kingdom, which maintains a peace treaty
with Israel, and which wishes to have no part in Tehran's attempt to become a
regional hegemon. Jordan has nothing to gain and much to lose if Iran succeeds
in turning the region into a staging ground of extremist armed forces that
answer to the Islamic Republic.
Jordan blocks the expansion of Iran's regional influence,
and is threatened by the presence of Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias in both
Iraq and Syria. Jordanian commentators have
previously warned that the country is prepared to take military action if
necessary to push away Shi'ite militias from its border with Syria.
Jordan's King Abdullah has, for his part, warned
years ago about the formation of a Shi'ite crescent in the Middle East.
Iran has not given up on its objective of building a war
machine in Syria, both through its own forces, and through its numerous
As long as Iran remains committed to using Syria this way,
Israel will feel compelled to defend itself. The result is a region that is
never far from a potential escalation.
"Even today, Israel is acting against Iran in Syria,
and we will continue to try and push it back," Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu said
on Oct. 15. Netanyahu spoke after concerns were raised that Russia would
seek to limit Israel's actions.
While the opening of the Quneitra crossing is a welcome and
hopeful step, which expresses an Israeli effort to promote stability in the
area, it remains far from clear whether Iran will allow Syria to enjoy such