This analysis was part of Prime Source's Weekly Regional Assessment
Recent Development: An Israeli delegation formed of several high-ranking Israeli officials visited Washington on August 18, with reports suggesting Syria was one of the major issues discussed. The delegation included Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, as well as the head of the Defense Ministry's political-security department, Zohar Palti. According to a report published by Haaretz published before the visit, the delegation was slated to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump's National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Power, Trump's special Mideast envoy, Jason Greenblatt. The report further quoted an unnamed White House source stating that “Talks will focus on Israel's security needs vis-a-vis Syria and Lebanon, and will not deal with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”
Another report in Ynet, suggests the Israeli delegation presented “sensitive, credible and highly disturbing intelligence information,” regarding Iran’s activities in Syria. According to this report, members of the delegation reported “a kind of embarrassment and lack of a clear position in the American administration with regards to the nature of the future agreement and disagreements on what should and what should not be done in Syria to bring quiet to the entire region. As far as they're concerned, the matter is still wide open.”
Meanwhile, according to a report released by the Israeli Television Channel 2, Iran is building a missile production site in Syria near the port city of Baniyas. The report included images taken from Israel’s Eros B spy satellite. These images purportedly match the pattern of Iranian missile production sites in Iran, with reports suggesting the facility is partly built underground and includes missile storage area possibly for the Scud-D missile. The construction of the site began at the end of 2016 and are expected to conclude by the end of 2017.
Analysis: The Israeli visit to Washington along with the release of images of the purported Iranian missile production site taken from Israel’s spy satellite both highlight Jerusalem’s growing nervousness with the Iranian expansion in Syria and perceived lack of appropriate response by the new US Administration. The release of the satellite images is not coincidental, and is likely part of broader efforts to convey Israeli concerns and raise attention to an issue that could have significant consequences for the region and could force Israel to take pre-emptive measures. While these concerns have been expressed on multiple occasions, Jerusalem assesses that the Iranian expansionism is quickly reaching a point of no-return, after which any kind of intervention will be moot and fail to change the situation – something Washington does not seem to understand or act upon. Indeed, reports regarding the building of missile factory in Syria follow similar reports regarding the building of two such production sites in Lebanon itself, with unconfirmed reports further suggesting these facilities are being built near the cities of Hermel and Sidon, respectively. Further reports suggest Iran is also developming a new terminal in the Tartus Port specifically meant to supply its forces or proxies in Syria. These sites will serve to permanently consolidate Iran’s presence in Syria, and start producing missiles that could deliver a heavy payload in almost any city across Israel. While Israel has developed anti-missile systems capable of intercepting these missiles, these systems can be overwhelmed by multiple launches, and thus the ability to produce enough such missile and deliver them to Hezbollah or any other party that could potentially be involved in a war against Israel is considered by Jerusalem as “game changing” development.
After the recent passing of sanctions against the IRGC, slated to be fully implemented by October this year, as well as further sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile program, Israel is seizing a window of opportunity to try and convince Washington to take a more aggressive stance on Iran’s expansionism and take Israeli concerns into account when negotiating on the future of Syria. Despite these sanctions and the bolstered anti-Iran rhetoric, the Israeli government, however, has little faith in Washington’s ability or willingness to prevent Iran from permanently entrenching itself in Syria. Jerusalem has been particularly rattled by the agreement between the US and Russia regarding the establishment of a de-escalation zone in southern Syria, which it feels gives no real guarantees that the Iran presence will be limited both in southern Syria and elsewhere in the country. As reports suggest negotiations have been intensifying between Washington and Moscow over a broader Syria, the visit is thus likely a last-ditch effort to convince Washington – and one that is viewed as having little chance to succeed as highlighted by the fact that Jerusalem is hedging its bet and sending a similar delegation to Russia. While little information has filtered from the recent high level visit to Washington, it is likely that, whether implicitly or explicitly, the Israeli government has made clear that Jerusalem would have to take actions against the building of these facilities. The window of opportunity for an alternative solution to be found is thus closing, with Israel likely ready to act unilaterally in a bid to prevent Hezbollah from accumulating enough advanced long range missile to overwhelm Israel’s missile defenses, and doing so from the Syrian front where Israel’s ability to counter the threat remains limited.
To avoid a unilateral action on the part of Israel, Washington will have to take significant actions against Iranian expansionism in Syria and missile productions sites in Syria and Lebanon. The current American strategy, which is to increase financial pressure on Iran while cooperating with Russia, will not alleviate Israeli concerns. Financial pressure have thus far only resulted in the passing of an increase in budget for the IRGC missile program and for the IRGC itself, while Jerusalem has little faith in Russia’s ability – or willingness – to monitor and prevent Iran from developing such facilities. The fact that the alleged Iranian missile production site in Syria is close to the Russian naval base in Tartus, as well as advanced Russian missile defense systems, suggests that Russia is – more or less deliberately – giving - quite literally - cover to the development of weapons that will drastically heighten Israeli casualties should a conflict with Hezbollah break out. Despite the cost of a conflict with Hezbollah and while Israel likely does not seek to trigger such a conflict, in light of the lack of American determination and Russian ambiguity, the threat of a broader escalation with Iranian proxies may be the only card Israel has to play in a bid to convince the two countries to take more drastic steps to counter Iran. Israeli likely hopes that the threat of an escalation that would act as a spoiler to Russian and American efforts to stop the conflict and hinder Russian and Iranian-backed advances in Eastern Syria, will be enough to convince Moscow and Washington.