On Sunday, Israel announced it had launched an attack directly against the Iranian Quds forces stationed in Damascus. The Quds force is a unit of the Iranian military designated to support pro-Iranian non-state actors such as Hezbollah and the Houthi Rebels in Yemen. The attacks reportedly destroyed bases and arms depots operated by the Iranian command in Syria.
Netanyahu responded by saying that “we have a constant policy to curtail Iranian attempts to establish their presence in Syria.” Jerusalem has long regarded Iran to be its major regional rival. It is therefore strongly against Israeli interests to allow the Iranian military to establish a presence on its northeastern border.
In service of this goal, Israel has waged an aerial bombing campaign named Operation Chess. The former Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot recently explained in an interview with the New York Times that the policy was crafted in 2017, when it became clear that the Iranian “vision was to have significant influence in Syria.” Tehran, Eizenkot said, was assessed to be building a force of up to 100,000 Shiite fighters from as far afield as Afghanistan and Pakistan, while it established intelligence and air bases within each Syrian military airport.
Air power alone
The Israeli military seems to believe that air strikes alone can attain its goal of removing the growing Iranian threat from its northeastern border.
This seems highly unlikely. Past attempts to achieve far-reaching strategic goals using only air power have failed repeatedly. In the 1920s Italian military theorist Giulio Douhet prophesied that airpower would single-handedly decide the wars of the future. Reality has not panned out this way.
In the Vietnam War, the United States decided not to deploy conventional ground forces against North Vietnam and instead to apply pressure through campaigns of continual bombardment. The Nixon administration later attempted to curtail the buildup of enemy forces in Cambodia through aerial bombing alone. Both attempts failed and the flawed strategy of relying heavily on airpower was central to the ultimate American defeat.
Israel has also repeatedly found itself unable to achieve strategic goals through airpower alone. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, the Israeli chief of staff was the former commander of the air force, Dan Halutz. He believed that airpower alone could destroy Hezbollah’s capacity to launch rockets at Israel and bring about its operational defeat. Although the Israeli Air Force flew 11,897 combat missions during the course of the 34-day war, the results were inadequate.
According to the findings of Israeli post-war investigations, the campaign succeeded in destroying only 100 out of 12,000 Hezbollah rocket launchers. By the time Israel realized it needed to deploy ground troops, it was too late to make substantial headway before international pressure forced a ceasefire.
Israel launched a similarly ill-fated aerial campaign against Egypt during the War of Attrition. Sick of the losses to its military in a series of endless raids from 1967 to 1970, Jerusalem decided to use deep-penetration bombings into Egypt to try and bring Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime to its knees.
Rather than achieving Israeli goals, the deep bombing runs provoked the Soviet Union into supporting its Egyptian ally. Moscow deployed advanced fighters and anti-air missiles to stop the bombings. Israel was forced to accept a ceasefire without obtaining its goal of destabilizing Nasser’s regime.
The folly of the bombings came back to haunt Israel in the 1973 War, when its aircraft were constrained by sophisticated Soviet anti-air missiles stationed on the Suez Canal.
There is no reason to believe that Israel will achieve its goal of curtailing Iranian influence by bombing targets in Syria. A ground invasion of the war-torn country is not even under consideration. The only realistic solution is a diplomatic one. In this respect, Jerusalem has limited options.
Israel does not have relations with Tehran or Damascus. The United States has little influence on events in Syria, and the recent announcement by the Trump administration of a pullout has rendered Washington utterly irrelevant. The Netanyahu government has long realized that the key to reducing Iranian influence in Syria is the attainment of cooperation with Russia.
Aside from Iran, Russian is the one state with substantial influence on what occurs in war torn Syria. Luckily for Israel, Moscow is generally sympathetic to its goals.
The Kremlin is concerned that Iranian plans to establish a presence on the Israeli border will serve to weaken its close ties with Damascus, increase Syrian dependence on Iran and sour Moscow’s strategic relations with Israel. Correspondingly, the Kremlin seems willing to use its diplomatic influence to limit Iranian influence in Syria. In 2017 the Russian Ambassador to Israel Alexander Petrovich Shein said, “Were it up to Russia, the foreign forces would not stay.”
The increased tempo of Israeli bombing attacks in Syria, however, has taken its toll on Russian-Israeli relations. In November a Russian spy plane was downed by Syrian anti-air missiles during an Israeli air raid. After the incident, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Israeli air strikes must stop, as “on several occasions this endangered the lives of our military in Syria.”
Following this incident, Russia ceased its tacit support for the Israeli goal of limiting Iranian influence.
Moscow has also shown its displeasure by inviting Hamas leader (and Iranian proxy) Ismail Haniyeh to Moscow and vociferously criticizing Israeli airstrikes. Most disturbingly, Israel Security Agency Director Nadav Argaman hinted earlier this month that Russia was interfering in the upcoming Israeli elections through its cyber capabilities.
Israeli airstrikes are highly unlikely to force Iran to curtail its influence in Syria. To make matters worse, the attacks are undermining its only significant lever in influencing Damascus and Tehran: its strategic relationship with Russia. For its own good and for the stability of the region Israel should stop bombing in Syria. Now.