Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has finally got Al Qods chief Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on the run in Syria. An army sitting on a prime site in a foreign capital with extraterritorial status would not normally get up and leave without being kicked out by the host government. However, in February 2019, after taking Israel’s incessant hammering for nearly three years, Soleimani called it quits. In a humiliating admission of defeat, he quietly ordered the removal of his entire establishment from Damascus to the northern town of Aleppo, hoping to escape the relentless Israeli air and missile offensive aimed at driving his forces out of Syria.
Sharing in this defeat at the hands of the Zionist enemy, and, most directly, its air force, are 2.500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers and men and their allied Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani Shiite militias. They were beaten by versatile Israeli air force tactics, using assorted types of surface-to-surface and airborne missiles and heavy aerial bombardments. They are all gone from Damascus, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report, having re-established their command centers and stores in Aleppo to escape further Israeli punishment. The only Iranian faces to be seen in the Syrian capital these days are officers dropping in for business at Syrian General Staff headquarters.
This epic Israeli feat – aided by Russia’s consent to look the other way, which the prime minister obtained from President Vladimir Putin – has gone unnoticed and unheralded at home, because it was chalked up by Netanyahu. And he is fighting his Likud party’s battle to win the April 9 general election in a furious and divisive campaign, characterized by acrimony rather than accomplishments.
No good marks were therefore awarded for his persistence against the odds in hitting Iran’s military structures again and again until they give up and leave Syria. Their ouster from Damascus is in the bag: Aleppo comes next. Some voices in the friendly Trump administration warned that this course would lead to a full-scale Iranian-Israeli war and oblige the US to step in. At the same time, two leading US officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, stood by Netanyahu throughout. They gambled on Israel’s serial bashing of Iranian targets in Syria complementing the administration’s overall policy against Iran. Pompeo saw in Israel’s offensive an integral element of the US sanctions regime against Tehran, a military accompaniment to Washington’s financial squeeze. The Secretary was in on Netanyahu’s tactical calculations in choosing Iranian targets for Israel’s air and missile strikes in Syria and the scale of those strikes, while Bolton spoke for US foreign policy in presenting the case to President Putin.
Putin’s assent was and remains critical to Israel’s anti-Iran drive. Syria is effectively under Moscow’s aegis. It was up to the prime minister to convince the Russian president that it was to Moscow’s advantage to go along with Israel’s military campaign to root the Iranian military presence out of Syria. And it was up to the Israeli air force to devise a complex and unbeatable strategy for grinding down the bold and brilliant Soleimani, star performer of Iran’s revolutionary Guards and, since 1998, commander of Iran’s Middle East fronts of expansion. Netanyahu and the air force both pulled off their missions. Soleimani’s strategy for the Syrian civil war was left in tatters by the Iranian military establishment’s retreat from its home from home in Damascus. The three goals he set himself have fallen apart:
1. To clinch the domination of Iranian influence over the Assad regime.
2. The prevent the Russian army from moving in and asserting control of the Syrian capital.
3. To establish a frontline Iranian-Hizballah-Shiite military base for fighting Israel in Damascus and areas to the south.
The three missions Tehran was forced to abandon with its military exit from Damascus, translated into three good reasons for Moscow to go along with Israel’s continuing campaign – especially since nothing more was required from Russia than non-interference. After all, Putin has no desire to see Iran ruling the roost in Damascus. For that reason, he never allowed the S-300 air-defense missiles he sent to Syria last October to be used for downing Israeli aircraft or missiles. Soleimani was left empty-handed in Damascus when he faced not only Israel and the US but Russia too.
To reverse this intolerable situation, the Iranian general tried for six months to win Putin around to using the advanced anti-air weapons for ambushing and shooting one of Israel’s US-made F-35 stealth fighters over Damascus. His pitch was that Russian arms would be shown to be superior to an advanced American stealth fighter. But Putin brushed this argument aside, although some members of his general staff liked the idea. In the end, the Iranian general decided it was time to cut his losses and run away from the exposed Damascus arena. The decisive factor was Israel’s wide-reaching attack of Feb. 11 against Iranian targets south of Damascus and further south in the Quneitra region. Iranian forces were told to pull up stakes and prepare to move north to Aleppo. In the next article, we list the formidable military assets relocated in the move.