by Hugh Fitzgerald
Israel describes as “mowing the lawn” its repeated strikes on a particular target – say, on a Hamas base in Gaza from which missies are launched into Israel, or on a particular building in Aleppo where weapons are hid; after that enemy base, or that weapons cache, are hit, and the enemy then repairs the base or replaces the weapons, and again launches another attack against the Jewish state, only to be responded to, in turn, by another Israeli response to wipe out the source of the attack. It’s a half-humorous, half-world-weary phrase that the Israelis use – “mowing the lawn” – one bespeaking a duty that must be repeatedly undertaken, matter-of-factly, determinedly but not despairingly. It’s akin to making the bed, taking out the garbage, getting an oil change. Another six months, or three, or one, when Israeli planes, missiles, or drones must once more engage in taking out the same target, by “mowing the lawn.” Israel has been doing plenty of this “mowing of the lawn” in Syria recently. A report on this repetitive indispensable exercise is here: “Israel Intensifying Air War in Syria Against Iranian Encroachment,” Algemeiner, April 22, 2021:
Israel has dramatically expanded air strikes on suspected Iranian missile and weapons production centers in Syria to repel what it sees as a stealthy military encroachment by its regional arch-enemy, Western and regional intelligence sources say….
Iran is using Syria as its Forward Operating Base. Before, it used to try to smuggle weapons, especially precision-guided missiles, through Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. But these missiles were too large to go unnoticed; they could be detected in transit; Israel became adept at destroying them before they could be delivered. So the Iranians have chosen to move their precision-guided missile factories into Syria, close to the Lebanese border, where they can manufacture those missiles and transfer them, over a short distance, sometimes through underground tunnels, to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel tolerated the entry of thousands of Iranian militia fighters from Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan into Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad against insurgents seeking to topple his authoritarian family rule….
When Israel originally allowed those Iranian militia fighters into Syria, it was trying to help Assad keep his side of the civil war going; his Shi’a fighters were deemed less of a threat to Israel than were the Sunnis of ISIS who had conquered large swathes of both Syria and Iraq. Israel did not foresee that the Iranian presence would, once the ISIS threat had been dealt with successfully, turn out to be mainly directed at Israel itself.
Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said in December that more than 500 Israeli missile strikes in 2020 alone had “slowed down Iran’s entrenchment in Syria … But we still have a long way to go to reach our goals in this arena.”
Five hundred missile strikes in 2020 is indeed quite a busy schedule, far outpacing the number of times Israel in previous years had been “mowing the lawn” in Syria.
A dozen Syrian military and Western intelligence officials said that topping Israel’s hit list has been any infrastructure that could be advancing Iran’s effort to produce more precision-guided missiles that could erode Israel’s regional military edge, rather than any existing Iranian-linked military asset.
Developing precision-guided missiles under cover in Syria is seen as less vulnerable to Israeli attack than ferrying them in overland or by air from Iran, these officials said.
It’s easier to hide a missile production facility, especially those built underground, than having the missiles out in the open for the long trek by truck all the way from Iran through Syria to Lebanon. And Iranian planes flying into Syrian airports can be tracked by Israeli radar and their cargo, once unloaded – if it turns out to be precision-guided missiles – can be destroyed on the ground.
“I don’t think Israel is interested in hitting each and every target belonging to Iranian-led forces. It’s not the issue. We are trying to hit targets with a strategic impact,” said Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, a former director general of Israeli’s strategic affairs ministry and ex-head of the research wing of Israeli military intelligence.
Hezbollah already has 150,000 missiles stored in Lebanon for future use against Israel. But Israel has to husband its resources to deal with the most serious threat (other than the nuclear one), and it is the thousands of precision-guided missiles, not the 150,000 unguided ones, that the IDF worries most about.
“We want to prevent Iran turning Syria into a Iranian base close to Israel that may bring a drastic strategic change in the situation. That’s why we keep pounding Iranian bases so they don’t take control of the country,” Kuperwasser told Reuters.
Israel sees Iran as a threat to its existence and has sought to blunt Iran’s quest for wider regional power with a selective mix of military and covert actions, including what Tehran says have been sabotage attacks on its nuclear program.
Israel’s military attacks on Iranian assets are confined mainly to Iranian bases Inside Syria, and to Iranian ships delivering oil and weapons to Assad’s forces. The covert actions include cyberwarfare (the Stuxnet computer worm that in 2010 caused a thousand centrifuges at Natanz to speed up and destroy themselves), the assassinations of five Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2012, a raid by Mossad agents that resulted in their spiriting back to Israel Iran’s entire nuclear archive, the explosion in April 2021 at the brand-new advanced centrifuge plant built 50 meters underground at Natanz, that destroyed both the main electric grid and its backup which, in turn, led to the destruction of 5,800 centrifuges.
Syrian officials did not respond to Reuters‘ requests for comment on the assertions that Iran was using Syrian bases to create a forward arc of firepower threatening to Israel.
Asked whether this was Iran’s overriding objective in Syria, two senior Iranian officials told Reuters Tehran was playing a major role in rebuilding Syria’s war-shattered infrastructure, ranging from construction projects to power grids.
Pressed about the military dimensions of Iran’s presence, the second Iranian official replied: “We send our workforce to Syria. It is up to Damascus to decide where they should serve.”
Those officials haven’t forgotten Their Master’s Voice. To wit: “War is deceit.” The notion that the Syrians would be ordering Iranians about (“deciding where they should serve”), in some project of rebuilding the country’s battered infrastructure is most implausible. It is the other way around: the Syrians who dance to the Iranian tune. The main, and perhaps only, purpose for the Iranian presence in Syria, now that the civil war has been largely won by the Alawites, is to supply more deadly weapons to Hezbollah, and to increase the lethality of the threat to the Jewish state. Iran, economically on its uppers, is not about to be inveigled into helping rebuild Syria, an undertaking that will cost a minimum of $350 billion just to bring the country back to the state it was in in 2011. Iran, in its straitened circumstances, can afford to spend money abroad only on what for it is Job One: the destruction of the Jewish state.
First published in Jihad Watch.