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Israel was dealt a bad hand when it comes to regional security, and Syria is the latest—and trickiest—card in the deck. On the one hand, the weakness of the Bashar al-Assad regime diminishes a leader whose country has never reconciled its past conflicts and territorial disputes with Israel and often proved a remorseless foe. On the other hand, Iran and Hezbollah are exploiting Syria’s instability, and Israelis fear the country will become a new launching pad for Iranian influence and attacks—essentially, another Lebanon. Ehud Yaari, a respected Israeli analyst, describes the risk of war between Iran and Israel in Syria as “almost inevitable.”
The stakes have increased recently. Major powers like Russia have intervened in Syria, and Moscow is providing advanced air-defense systems like the S-300 to the Assad regime, hindering Israel’s freedom of action in the region. The Trump administration also recently announced that U.S. forces would stay in Syria to counter Iranian influence.
Israel’s intelligence services have long studied Syria and know it well. In recent decades Israel has shown that its forces can quickly strike throughout Syria from bases within Israel: The Israeli military struck a suspected Syrian nuclear facility in 2007, repeatedly targeted terrorists like Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyah in Syria, and otherwise felt free to directly intervene to limit any threat emanating from Syria.
Although Israel did not back a faction in Syria when rebellion and then civil war broke out in 2011—fearing chaos and believing a more open intervention could do more harm than good—it did execute more limited interventions that focused on its long-time enemies: Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Tehran considers the Syrian regime a strategic ally and sent several thousand of its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces to fight when the regime looked near collapse in the early years of the civil …