Yemen, Syria and Iran’s capabilities: A look at Israel’s strategic view of key proxy conflicts in the MidEast

Israel is concerned about Iran’s role in Syria and Yemen, as well as its continued support for groups that threaten Israel. A recent discussion with an Israeli senior defense official provided an insight into Israel’s concerns and how these conflict areas have developed. A previous post at the FDD’s Long War Journal looked an overview of the region, now it is worth examining several key areas and themes in Israel’s strategic view.

During the period of the Iran deal, the senior official pointed out, Iran supercharged two conflicts in the region. First it aided the Houthi rebels in Yemen to escalate their attacks and increase their capabilities. This included the ballistic missiles fired at Saudi Arabia, the most recent of which fell in late February. By Nov. 2017, the U.S.-built Patriot defense system had intercepted 100 tactical ballistic missiles. By 2019 drone threats increased, including the Qasef-style loitering munitions that used Iranian technology.

Israel paid particularly close attention to Iran’s use of drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia in Sept. 2019. In Dec. 2020 Israel launched a major air defense drill with its multi-layered air defense systems. The U.S. has supported Israel’s development of Arrow, David’s Sling and Iron Dome. These systems can now work together against threats and Iron Dome has significant new capabilities against drones and cruise missiles. By mid-February 2021, Israel and the U.S. announced the start of Arrow-4 development. In addition, Israel announced in March new capabilities for Iron Dome and its ability to confront drone and missile threats simultaneously.

“Yemen is important because it is the first time Iran is in that region,” said the Israeli defense official. “Iran has a foothold there now. In the past it had influence, but it has a foothold.” The Biden administration rescinded the Trump administration’s terror designation for the Houthis but has called on them to stop attacks on Saudi Arabia.

A second war that grew in the wake of the Iran Deal, according to the official, is what Israel calls the “war between the wars.” The official argued that someone must push back against Iran, and if not then there could be escalation. “They have 100,000 rockets in Lebanon and we can’t have that in Syria. We developed Iron Dome and other air defense systems to confront these threats.” The U.S. historically did not focus on Syria, the official noted. “For us, Syria is crucial.” Israel has acted to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, on Feb. 28 with airstrikes that were reportedly a response to an Iranian attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman.

Until superpowers settle issues in Syria it will continue, the official notes. That would require the U.S. staying in Syria. Israel doesn’t ask the U.S. to carry out actions on its behalf, but noted that the mere presence of the U.S. flag is a positive deterrent for the region in both Syria and Iraq. U.S. airstrikes on Syrian targets in response to pro-Iranian militia attacks on Erbil and Baghdad in February would appear to illustrate the importance of continues U.S.-Israel cooperation on these issues. At the same time the possibility of U.S.-Russia talks about Syria and Iran’s role there could be a future scenario.

Recent years have seen increased reports of Israel and U.S. cooperation on Syria, including U.S. sources indicating January 2021 airstrikes were aided by American intelligence provided to Israel. Former U.S. envoy for Syria James Jeffrey highlighted that support in statements in January. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and other officials were key to the cooperation in the last years. The Israeli official sees the U.S. as vital in this space and underscores that Israeli operations must never jeopardize U.S. forces. Full coordination with Israel’s “friends” in the region is key. “Coordination will continue,” he said, praising the new Biden team, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, CENTCOM’s McKenzie, Brett McGurk and Colin Kahl among others.

Iran’s increased role in Syria, as well as foothold in Yemen and influence over proxies and militias in Iraq and Lebanon, showcase recent success. This has changed the region rapidly in just the last few years. While Iran’s desire to export its 1979 Revolution largely failed in the 1980s and 1990s, it has now “done well,” the official pointed out. Iran’s only setback was in Sudan in recent years. Reports between 2009 and 2015 alleged Israeli airstrikes in Sudan and linked them to Iranian weapons trafficking. Today, Sudan and Israel appear on the path toward warmer relations.

The corollary of these two trends, the rise of Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen and the War between the Wars in Syria, also dovetails with decreased influence by the Gulf states in regional affairs. Saudi Arabia once played a larger role in Iraq and Syria. Today, the Gulf states, which have grown closer to Israel, are more focused internally or on their immediate neighbors. This appears to mean that there is little balance for Hezbollah in Lebanon, for instance. Progress on a maritime deals to delimitate economic zones by Israel and Lebanon will likely be held hostage by Hezbollah.

Israel warned that Iran’s capabilities are increasing. In the wake of the Abqaiq attack in Sept. 2019 and the ballistic missile attack on U.S. forces in Jan. 2020, Iran’s abilities are on full display. Iran has carried out recent tests with its ballistic missiles, including a satellite-carrying missile called Soljanah in early February. Such large missiles could carry other payloads, such as a nuclear capabilities. In the first months of 2021, Iran claimed new anti-ship ballistic missiles and used its Emad, Sejjil and Ghadr-type missiles in its Great Prophet 15 exercise.

“Iran has tremendous capabilities,” the Israeli official admitted. These capabilities, paired with UAVs and cruise missiles, puts Iran in a unique category with only a handful of countries in the world that have such an arsenal. 

Seth J. Frantzman is Executive Director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, and author of ‘After ISIS: The US, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East.’ A contributor to Defense News and The Jerusalem Post, he is conducting research for a forthcoming book called ‘Drone Wars.’

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