Israel pursues Iran rivalry despite coronavirus and new government

Israel has seemingly launched six air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria over the past three weeks

epa08102097 Iranians burn US and Israel flags during anti-US protests over killing late Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Lieutenant general and commander of the Quds Force Qassem Soleimani  in Tehran, Iran, 04 January 2020. The Pentagon announced that Iran's Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed on 03 January 2020 following a US airstrike at Baghdad's international airport. The attack comes amid escalating tensions between Tehran and Washington  EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH
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Comments last week from an unnamed Israeli defence official that Iran was reducing its presence in Syria sparked debate about Tehran's next moves and how Israel should respond.

Iranian policy will be a big concern for the Israeli government to be sworn in Thursday, a unity coalition agreed after more than a year of unprecedented political deadlock.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who will be in Israel on Wednesday, is to discuss Iran with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incoming defence minister Benny Gantz.

Their focus will be on Iranian nuclear ambitions, with the US pursuing a campaign of "maximum pressure", backed by Israel, to deter an Iranian weapons programme.

But developments in Syria have switched attention to Iranian action in Israel's northern neighbour.

Israel has launched hundreds of attacks in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 – targeting government troops, allied Iranian forces and fighters from Tehran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

But in what may be an intensification, six air strikes attributed to Israel have been carried out on Iranian targets in Syria over the past three weeks.

Israel almost never claims – or denies – such strikes, telling reporters that it "does not comment on foreign reports".

But following the most recent bombing last week, outgoing Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said: "Iran has nothing to do in Syria ... (and) we won't stop before they leave Syria."

Mr Bennett, who may be out of government entirely depending on last-minute coalition negotiations, accused Iran of "trying to establish itself on the border with Israel to threaten Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa".

Since the start of the year, Iran has faced multiple crises: the killing of strategist General Qassem Suleimani by the US, the region's deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 109,000 people infected, and tumbling oil prices slashing the state budget.

All of which has some observers wondering whether Iran is trying to reduce the cost of its involvement in Syria.

Such speculation was further fuelled by an Israeli defence official recently quoted in Israeli media as saying: "For the first time since (deploying forces to) Syria, Iran is reducing the number of its soldiers there and evacuating bases."

A US diplomat said: "It would make sense at a certain point that Iran would want to cut its losses and downsize its presence there just because it's increasingly costly to them in terms of life and property."

But not everyone in Israel is convinced that Tehran is ready to abandon Syria.

"The Iranians are not leaving," said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, who suggested that Iran may instead be relying more heavily on local forces.

"Still, the commanders are from Hezbollah and Iran and the cheap soldiers are Shia militia and local Syrians," he said.

A source in Jerusalem working on Iran policy agreed that Tehran remained committed to Syria and likely views its investment as a "sunk cost".

"They are waiting for the revenues, they can't withdraw so fast without getting the economic fruit that they think they should get," the source said.

Another source in Jerusalem claimed that Iran was attempting to divert funding for its coronavirus response towards paying its proxies in Syria.

"They are using the virus as an opportunity to increase funds for destabilising activities in the region," the source said, without giving further details.

In April, sanctions-hit Iran urged the International Monetary Fund to issue a US$5 billion emergency loan to help it combat the virus.

Yoram Schweitzer, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said strikes on Syria were either a response to growing Iranian operations or a bid to weaken an enemy already burdened by the pandemic.

But Israel will need to tread carefully, warned the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

"What Israel needs is a defence minister and an IDF (army) chief of staff who can do the necessary risk-management work together, and act to continue to degrade the Iranian military presence in Syria without creating situations that might draw the entire region into renewed conflict," the paper said.