Syria strikes long prophesised but war not foretold

Despite seeking to check Iran’s influence in the region, Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines of Syria’s war.
Sunday 13/05/2018
An image released by the government-affiliated ‘Central War Media’ in Syria purportedly shows Syrian air defence systems intercepting Israeli missiles over Damascus' airspace, on May 10. (AFP / CENTRAL WAR MEDIA).
An image released by the government-affiliated ‘Central War Media’ in Syria purportedly shows Syrian air defence systems intercepting Israeli missiles over Damascus' airspace, on May 10. (AFP / CENTRAL WAR MEDIA).

TUNIS - The exchange of strikes between Israel and Iran May 10 had been a long time coming. However, the extent, or even possibility, of a major military escalation between the two countries is uncertain.

That a flare-up in hostilities between Israel and Iran was expected in Syria had been no secret. Israel had distributed satellite images of what it claimed were Iranian positions in southern Syria for months. Western journalists had been briefed by Israeli officials on Iran’s encroachment on its northern border for most of the year.

Nevertheless, Iranian forces and their allies within the Lebanese militia Hezbollah continued to mass in southern Syria, threatening to strike Israel.

Despite what Israel has admitted were “hundreds” of strikes on Iranian positions in Syria, Tehran did not respond. That changed May 10, with Israel claiming, in an account disputed by Tehran and Damascus, that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched approximately 20 rockets from Syrian territory into the Golan.

In response, Israel deployed the greatest mass of its firepower in Syria since the 1973 war and claimed to have destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure there.

Regardless of who fired first, the trigger appears to have been US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran, a move aggressively lobbied for by Israel.

Despite seeking to check Iran’s influence in the region, Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines of Syria’s war. However, as the conflict has morphed from domestic civil war to a military competition between the world’s great powers, so, too, has the threat facing the Jewish state shifted.

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When Hezbollah entered the Syrian conflict in support of the Assad regime in 2012, there appeared little chance the militia would gain anything other than a bloody nose. Six years later, Damascus’s control over much of Syria has been largely restored and Hezbollah, despite losses thought to number in the thousands, emerged as one of the most lethal forces in the conflict.

Iranian Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi told the Iranian news agency Mehr in February: “The Lebanese Hezbollah, which was an asymmetric fighting force, has transformed itself, with its fighting in Syria, into a powerful regular army that can defend Lebanon and its people against the Zionists, as well as the [IRGC].”

Despite the threat Hezbollah and the IRGC pose, the balance of power, certainly in terms of military strength and diplomatic pull, lies with Tel Aviv.

Iran, weakened economically at home with the rial in free fall and limited diplomatically as it scrambles to save what it can of the nuclear deal following the US withdrawal, is ill-placed to confront Israel directly. Regionally, too, Iran finds itself isolated.

Perhaps the best hope for Iran saving gains it made in Syria is in the intervention by Russia. Moscow has long enjoyed solid relations with Tel Aviv, with many Russian Jews in prominent positions in the Israeli hierarchy. Likewise, the Kremlin has a strong working relationship with Tehran through its joint support of the Assad regime.

That Russia appeared ready to play the honest broker was indicated the morning of the strike. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told Russia’s Tass news agency: “We have established contacts with all parties and we call for restraint from all parties. It’s very worrying and a source of concern. We have to work to ease the tension.”

Though aware of its weakened position, much of Iran’s and Hezbollah’s identites are rooted in their resistance to Israel. Tehran has proven itself capable of choosing the time of its fights. Whether it will do so again remains a matter of speculation.

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