Iran, Israel clashes likely to escalate in Syria after Trump’s Iran walkout
BEIRUT - It took no time for Iran and Israel to start attacking each other in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s widely anticipated withdrawal from the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran.
Israel had been pressing Trump to ditch the nuclear accord, which both maintain that, far from deterring Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, encourages such activities.
In that sense, Trump’s action offered an opportunity for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has sought to take military action against Iranian forces swarming over Syria on Israel’s northern border.
Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement “has accelerated the escalation between Israel and Iran,” observed Ofer Zalzberg of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Diplomatic sources suggest Trump may turn a blind eye to Israel’s actions in retaliating for Iranian attacks.
Netanyahu, fearful of an Islamic power on his doorstep, had gone to great lengths to nudge Trump to void the 2015 agreement, even presenting a massive trove of data on Iran’s nuclear programme that allegedly indicated Tehran had a deliverable nuclear device before it signed the 2015 accord.
Thus unshackled by Trump, just after midnight May 9, Iran launched a barrage of 20 surface-to-surface missiles into Israel from Syria. It was the first time Iranian forces there fired directly on Israel’s military in months of growing tension and scattered exchanges along the Jewish state’s northern border.
Israeli officials said several of the missiles were hit by Israeli interceptors and none reached their targets or caused casualties.
The Israeli Air Force responded with strikes by 28 aircraft that reportedly fired 70 missiles into more than a dozen Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) facilities in Syria, including a weapons depot at Damascus’s international airport.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian war through an activist network, reported that at least 23 Iranian and Syrian personnel were killed.
Military analysts said Israel’s strikes constituted the most extensive attacks inside Syria since the Jewish state’s victory over Syria and Egypt in the October 1973 war.
Further clashes look inevitable if Iran holds on to its deployment plans in Syria, including the Golan Heights.
“Iran will retaliate through proxies, sooner or later, against Israeli military sites in the north,” said Gary Samore, a former White House coordinator for arms control.
“The confrontation is expected to drag on — and inevitably escalate — because Iran’s hardliners see an opportunity to seize geopolitical control of the Levant through threatening the Jewish state while burnishing their revolutionary credentials and humiliating the Americans — meaning the fumbling Trump administration.
“Tehran wants a long-term presence in Syria for strategic reasons and wants some kind of return on its heavy investment in troops and treasure there. Israel will go on hitting back, but eventually, the Iranians calculate they will inflict a major catastrophe on the Jewish state.”
Israeli forces “view this Iranian attack very severely,” said an Israeli military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus. “This event is not over.”
Israel has been alarmed by what it considers a military buildup by IRGC forces in southern Syria, including the strategic Golan Heights, which dominates northern Galilee. Israel has controlled half of the volcanic plateau since 1967.
Iran “will need to push back” against the Americans and their allies in the region “to show that it cannot be bullied,” warned Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
Israel claimed the missile barrage was carried out by al-Quds Force, the IRGC’s special forces arm. Israel says the Iranians’ May 10 missile operation was masterminded by al-Quds Force commander Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who reports directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
This underlined that the operation was sanctioned from the very top in Iran as a measured but provocative answer against Trump’s closest ally in direct response to the US president’s actions.
Soleimani has risen to hero status in Iran for his leadership in expanding Tehran’s territorial ambitions and leading IRGC forces who have kept the embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad in power.