Iran’s risky game in Syria and the shadow of showdown with Israel
Talk of a showdown between Israel and Iran in Syria has grown since an armed Iranian drone infiltrated Israeli territory in February. Israel downed the drone but lost an F-16 jet to Syrian ground fire during a reprisal raid.
Two months later, an air strike on an Iranian facility at a Syrian airbase killed seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops. Tehran blamed Israel and vowed retaliation, drawing Israeli counter-threats to broaden attacks on Iranian military assets in Syria.
The recent strikes build off a long history of altercations between Iran and Israel.
A 2017 statement by outgoing Israeli Air Force commander Major-General Amir Eshel said the Israelis have launched more than 100 strikes on suspected Iranian and Hezbollah-linked positions since 2012. Israel argues that the strikes are necessary to confront the Iranian threat on its border and curb the flow of weaponry to its Shia proxy, Hezbollah.
Iran’s military intervention in Syria began in late 2011 following the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Iran initially kept a low profile in the conflict but ramped up its presence in mid-2014 after the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
The Israeli military said Iran sent thousands of fighters from various military organisations to fight in Syria under Tehran’s leadership. Its operations there, which are chiefly orchestrated by the IRGC’s elite al-Quds Force, have two separate contingents. The first is exclusively made up of Iranian forces, most of them IRGC ground forces. The second is a smaller group of units from the Iranian Army, which began arriving in Syria in early 2016.
Iran has expressed no desire to withdraw from Syria and has reinforced its military control by mobilising proxy forces from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These proxies have been trained, mobilised and deployed across Syrian territory by al-Quds Force.
Iran-backed forces deployed in the western part of the country have two objectives: to guarantee the survival of the Assad regime as the civil war winds down and to create a permanent threat to Israel to deter any Israeli attack on Iran.
Israel is clearly frustrated with the developments, especially as the United States seems reluctant to help counter Iranian expansion. Without any real strategy in the Syria conflict, Washington has apparently left the country’s future to be determined by other regional powers, namely Iran and Russia.
Israel is increasingly aware that it cannot rely on direct US military assistance against Iran’s military presence in western Syria. If it wants to carry out military operations against Iran or any of its proxies, it knows it must embark on this path alone.
“No matter the price, we will not allow a noose to form around us,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio.
At the same time, Iran is ratcheting up its rhetoric. On April 20, a senior Iranian military official warned that Tehran is ready to attack Israel at any moment.
“Don’t trust your airbases. They’re within reach,” IRGC Deputy Commander Brigadier-General Hossein Salami said. He was referring to the recent bombing of an Iran-controlled airbase in central Syria. While Israel neither confirmed nor denied the attack, Russia and the United States indicated that Tel Aviv was responsible.
Despite the rhetoric, Iran is neither prepared nor interested in a showdown with Israel, at least not before parliamentary elections in Lebanon in May. Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, is hoping to sweep electoral seats in the election, shifting the balance of power in its favour to ensure that any government formed is a “Hezbollah government.”
On April 22, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a US television interview that further Israeli sorties in Syria would have “consequences” but that a major escalation was unlikely.
“I do not believe that we are headed towards regional war but I do believe that, unfortunately, Israel has continued its violations with international law, hoping to be able to do it with impunity because of the US support and trying to find smokescreens to hide behind,” Zarif told CBS News.
Zarif warned that Israel was playing a risky game. “They should expect that if they continue to violate territorial integrity of other states, there’ll be consequences,” he said.
After parliamentary elections in Lebanon, Iran could respond with greater hostility to any new Israeli strike, even conducting reprisal attacks.
While neither side wants a war, a single misstep could prove disastrous. Ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran and Tel Aviv have been fighting each other through proxies, cyber-attacks and assassination squads. The covert war will not last forever, however, and any open and direct confrontation, if it comes, will have dire implications for the Middle East.