US support for Israeli airstrikes in Syria has been important recently

James Jeffrey sees Israel’s campaign against Iran as part of a multi-pillar US strategy in the region that worked between 2018 and 2020.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, the former American envoy on Syrian policy notes that “US-supported Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in the country further limited the [Syrian] regime’s military options.” James Jeffrey, the envoy, was key to US policy in the last several years and he backed Israel’s efforts as well as Turkey’s role in Syria. He left office after Trump lost the election last year.

Jeffrey also told Jared Szuba in an interview for Al-Monitor about the US support for Israeli airstrikes in Syria. “The US only began supporting that when I came on board. I went out there and we saw Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and others, and they thought that they were not being supported enough by the US military, and not by intelligence. And there was a big battle within the US government, and we won the battle. The argument [against supporting Israel’s campaign] was, again, this obsession with the counterterrorism mission. People didn’t want to screw with it, either by worrying about Turkey or diverting resources to allow the Israelis to muck around in Syria, as maybe that will lead to some blowback to our forces. It hasn’t.”

Jeffrey sees Israel’s campaign against Iran as part of a multi-pillar US strategy in the region that worked between 2018 and 2020. “So you throw all those together — the anti-chemical weapons mission, our military presence, the Turkish military presence, and the Israeli dominance in the air — and you have a pretty effective military pillar of your military, diplomatic and isolation three pillars.”

In addition, after airstrikes last week on Iranian targets in Syria near the Iraqi border “an unnamed senior US intelligence official told the Associated Press that the air strikes had been carried out with intelligence provided by the US and that they had targeted warehouses being used as part of a pipeline to store and stage Iranian weapons. The warehouses also served as a pipeline for components that supported Iran’s nuclear programme, according to the official,” the BBC reported.

The full extent of US support for Israeli airstrikes in Syria is unknown. There are only some points of light that guide a full understanding of this period. When the US sought to withdraw from Syria, first in December 2018 and then in October 2019, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rushed to reassure Israel about its freedom of action in Syria. In October 2018, US Central Command head Joseph Votel also visited the US base in Tanf in Syria near the Jordanian border. This base is between Israel and Iran’s base called Imam Ali near Albukamal on the Iraqi border.

US National Security Advisor John Bolton also assured Israel of US support for airstrikes in a January 2019 visit, according to reports at Politico. Bolton left the Trump administration but nevertheless was key to crafting a policy that sought for the US to stay in Syria until Iran left the country. Iran didn’t leave but Israel has said it wants to stop Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

The Syrian regime reconquered the Golan after a US-backed ceasefire fell apart in the summer of 2018. Iran and Hezbollah sought to entrench near the Golan. A January 2019 interview with former Israel Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. (Res) Gadi Eizenkot revealed that Israel had carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. Iraq also accused Israel of airstrikes in the fall of 2019. In August 2017 then-Air Force Chief Major Amir Eshel said Israel had struck convoys destined for Hezbollah, travelling via Syria more than 100 times. The math would appear to indicate a major increase in airstrikes by January 2019 when Eizenkot made his assessment to the New York Times.

This dovetails with another data point. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, according to sources who have spoken to The Jerusalem Post, was concerned about Israeli actions in Syria and Iraq because of effects it might have on the US anti-ISIS Coalition. Mattis left his position in December 2018. A US Lead Inspector General Report covering October to December 2019 expressed concern about Israeli airstrikes. It would appear that the increased airstrikes in 2019 were part of what Jeffrey meant when he said that there had been a battle in the US government about supporting Israeli airstrikes “by the US military and not by intelligence.”

The BBC report asserts the airstrikes on the night of January 12-13 were “carried out with intelligence provided by the US.” This may have wider regional implications beyond just Syria or Iraq. An article by Amos Yadlin and Assaf Orion at INSS on December 2, 2020 notes that “Israel and the United States have worked together in the past to combat Iran’s nuclear program, for example, with the penetration of the Stuxnet computer worm in the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, although they differ in their approaches to offensive activity of this sort. Israel’s attack on the nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 occurred with Washington’s knowledge, and even its blessing. However, it should not be inferred from events shortly before the assassination – including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel and elsewhere in the region, and the (leaked) meeting between Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – that the operation [attributed to Israel] in Tehran was coordinated between all parties. At the same time, it is very likely that this time too, Israel did not surprise the US administration, and even received its blessing.”

These details point to US support for Israel’s actions in Syria, including intelligence and other support. The question is whether this period of support and how it manifested itself in 2019 and 2020 will continue in the same form. Jeffrey’s article hints that there are many sides to this in Washington, some opposed and some supportive of the campaign against Iran in Syria.

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