Israel’s looming war with Iran in southern Syria

While US power in the entire region is unmistakably in retreat, Israel is likely to make a fight of it across the Golan.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Israeli soldiers look at the Syrian side of the border on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, on July 7. (Reuters)
Waiting game. Israeli soldiers look at the Syrian side of the border on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, on July 7. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - At first glance, Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic gateway to the Arabian Gulf, in retaliation for US President Donald Trump’s expanding confrontation with the Islamic Republic, does not seem to have a direct bearing on Israel’s highly combustible face-off with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Shia allies in Syria.

However, it would be a serious mistake to separate the two, for they are the catalysts for a conflict that has been decades in the making — ever since the CIA and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service engineered a Tehran coup that toppled popular, freely elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 and restored the young shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to power, who then gave the West free rein with Iran’s oil wealth.

With Iran currently convulsed by street protests over an economic crisis that is going to get worse as Trump tightens the US grip on sanctions, it would make sense for Iran to avoid a war with Israel.

Conversely, Iran’s economic woes are likely to encourage the Jewish state to hang tough and keep prodding Iranian forces and their Shia allies in Syria as they seek to establish military bases on the disputed Golan Heights, the current flashpoint in the Iran-Israel stand-off.

Firas Elias, an analyst at the Ankara Centre for Crisis and Policy Studies, observed that “the international and regional situation today has become more conducive to a war against Iran’s legions in the Levant.

“Relevant factors include US-British-French alignment on containing Iran’s regional adventurism, the growing Israeli appetite for a war in Syria against Iran and Saudi Arabia’s increasingly activist foreign and security policies.”

Elias argues that an Iran-Israel showdown is all but inevitable and that, as unrest in Iran swells, this could prompt regime hardliners, led by the IRGC, to seize power and appoint a new supreme leader to replace Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He has come under mounting personal criticism since public unrest over the sagging economy erupted in December 2017 and ended only after a massive security crackdown in which two dozen protesters were killed.

The economic slump is the consequence of the clerical regime’s failures as much as US sabotage aimed at undermining an economy steadily corroded by corruption and ineptitude since the shah was overthrown in January 1979 in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution.

Elias warns that time may be running short for Iran and even for Khamenei, who took over from Khomeini when he died in 1989.

Elias quoted the Iranian newspaper Shargh, which is close to President Hassan Rohani’s reformist movement, as reporting “that political arrangements have been under way behind the scenes to make early preparations for the post-Khamenei stage, whereby the Revolutionary Guard will swoop into power in order to maintain its authority by appointing a new supreme leader subject to its orders.”

Shargh reported that “conservative movement leaders in Iran, along with the pillars of the Deep State, have become convinced that if internal and external affairs continue on their current track, the next president of the republic must be a military figure.”

The list of possible candidates includes Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s elite al-Quds Force, which has been fighting in Syria for six years and which wields immense military influence.

With a military leader such as Soleimani, the eminence grise behind Iran’s expansionist campaign, as president of Iran, the hardliners would control the centres of power and the prospect of war with arch-enemy Israel would most probably be greatly enhanced.

The Iranians pretty much control the ground war in Syria, while Russia’s military power is limited to the air, where the major threat to Iranian and allied forces is the Israeli Air Force, which has been hammering Iran’s Syria-backed arms supplies for Hezbollah in Lebanon, particularly advanced missile systems that are considered “game changers.”

The Israelis carried out more than 100 air strikes against arms convoys and Syrian depots even before they escalated their air campaign in February.

The first known raid was carried out as early as January 30, 2013, when Israeli jets blasted a truck convoy reportedly carrying sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles that the Israelis claimed would have allowed Hezbollah to challenge Israel’s long-held air supremacy.

The shadowy conflict between Israel and IRGC proxies, primarily Lebanon’s Hezbollah, moved closer to open conflict after al-Quds Force sent an explosives-packed aerial drone into Israeli airspace in February.

An Israeli AH-64 Apache gunship shot it down and the Jewish state’s military chiefs began limited air strikes against targets identified as military bases the IRGC and its proxy Shia militias were establishing in south-western Syria, often in Syrian Army facilities.

After an Israeli F-16 was shot down by Syria in February, the Israeli Air Force mounted its biggest operation since the 1973 Middle East war and knocked out a dozen “Iranian” bases, including a warehouse containing some 200 missiles of various types.

The Israeli-Iranian shoot-out has eased since then but IRGC elements and sizeable numbers of Shia militiamen — including fighters from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, led by Hezbollah — have been reported moving south with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces towards the 1973 ceasefire line where Israeli forces are arrayed on the strategic Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 war.

Assad launched a major offensive against rebel forces in the south-west on June 19 with Russian air support, violating a ceasefire negotiated by the Russians themselves with the United States and Jordan in July 2017.

Assad’s forces have overwhelmed several rebel-held towns, driving some 270,000 civilians towards Israel and Jordan for refuge.

For Assad, retaking Daraa province would be a major and highly symbolic victory as it was the cradle of the uprising against his regime in March 2011 that ignited the civil war and the tangle of lesser conflicts that have killed an estimated 400,000 people and left most of the country in ruins.

Reclaiming Daraa would also mean Assad’s power is secure, for the time being at least, all the more so since the Americans appear to have resigned themselves to his continued rule, albeit under the thumbs of Moscow and Tehran.

While US power in the entire region is unmistakably in retreat, Israel is likely to make a fight of it across the Golan.

The Israelis have strengthened their forces, particularly artillery, armour and air-defence missile units, along the 1973 war ceasefire line across the Golan that is now their northern border in a war that could draw Saudi Arabia, Iran’s long-time Gulf rival and Israel’s new-found ally against an Islamic Republic seeking to become a regional superpower.

Israel has warned that it would not tolerate Iranian forces or their allies on its northern border. Russia, a key Assad ally that wants to keep him in power as a surrogate and has little liking for its Iranian partners in Syria, has failed to prevent an Iranian thrust southward.

“Though Russia seems eager to drive a wedge between Assad and his Iranian partners, the Kremlin has shown itself either unwilling or unable to effectively control the regime in Damascus,” observed US military analyst Joseph Trevithick.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin has very clear designs on expanding Russian influence in Syria, the Middle East as a whole, and elsewhere, and is pursuing policies that support these interests above any others.”

Assad has vowed to recapture “every inch” of Syria taken by rebel forces since the war began and his focus now is on the strategic south-west, where the civil war intersects with the confrontation between Israel and Iran.

There have been reports that Hezbollah and other Shia militias were deploying there in large numbers, either openly or embedded with Syrian regime forces.

Haidar al-Jubouri, leader of the Iraqi Liwa Zulfiqar, is reported to have been seen in a Syria command post attached to the Syrian Army’s crack 4th Division in Daraa, which borders Israel and Jordan.

These forces, including Hezbollah’s elite Radwan Division, are concentrated around the cities of Daraa, the provincial capital, the Druze city of Sweida and Quneitra, former capital of the Golan region and largely deserted since 1973. Daraa is 16km from the Jordanian border and 45km from the Golan.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israeli US think-tank, stated that Hezbollah forces have advanced south with Syria’s crack Republican Guard and the 4th Division.

“What we’re seeing in Syria is not separate Shia militias fighting on the Assad regime’s behalf but parts of a structured army commanded by the IRGC’s al-Quds Force, with Hezbollah as its right hand,” observed Lebanese analyst Hanin Ghaddar of the Washington Institute.

“Whether openly or in disguise, Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies are deploying in the south in large numbers, greatly increasing the potential for cross-border escalation,” Ghaddar and the institute’s Phillip Smyth noted in recent assessment.

Hezbollah units are said to be integrating with Syria’s 4th Division and the Republican Guard.

Liwa Fatemiyoun, an Iraqi Shia militia, has attached itself to another crack Syrian formation, the Tiger Forces led by the regime’s most influential combat commander, 48-year-old General Suheil al-Hassan, who has achieved a cult-like status with a string of victories since 2012 and has been dubbed the “Tiger.”

The ferocious artillery bombardments and air strikes the Syrians are employing are his trademark.

The presence of such elite Syrian formations in the south suggests that Assad is prepared to slug it out with the Israelis, probably using the Shia militias, more expendable than his crack units, as the spearhead of an assault on Daraa.