Tensions rising between Israel and Iran to dangerous levels

Recent tit-for-tat strikes between Iran and Israel in the Syrian theatre could lead to an all-out war.
Thursday 10/05/2018
An image grab from a video broadcast on Syria's official TV purportedly shows Syrian air defence systems intercepting Israeli missiles over Syrian airspace on May 10. (AFP/CENTRAL WAR MEDIA)
An image grab from a video broadcast on Syria's official TV purportedly shows Syrian air defence systems intercepting Israeli missiles over Syrian airspace on May 10. (AFP/CENTRAL WAR MEDIA)

US President Donald Trump’s decision to tear apart the Iran nuclear deal has set the tone for the period to come in the Middle East.

Recent tit-for-tat strikes between Iran and Israel in the Syrian theatre could lead to an all-out war with Iran and its allies facing off against Israel and, by default, the United States.

The focal point is the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights where Iran and its proxy Hezbollah are turning the long-dormant front into the Middle East’s latest hotspot. Israel has said it cannot accept continued Iranian presence in Syria.

Widening the conflict would affect the people of Jordan, Syria, Israel and Lebanon. Economically, this would devastate those countries. Lebanon, suffering from the weight of more than 1 million Syrian refugees, would practically collapse under the pressure from providing more people shelter from fighting.

What little infrastructure remains in the war-ravaged country would fall victim to a conflict that could develop into a generalised — or world — war. What is missing is the trigger.

The war in Syria that began as domestic unrest and changed into a brutal civil war. With the infusion of international forces, that conflict can hardly be classified as such any longer. In the next phase, it could become the theatre of a war with Israel.

Most of the ingredients are there, including troops from a cluster of foreign countries, many possessing new weapons systems and itching to try them out. Russia, Turkey and Iran have troops on the ground and, in Russia’s case also in the air, as does the United States.

Tehran, which has had troops in Syria for some time, can boast about having its very own “foreign legion”: Shia militant groups of many nationalities but none matching the Lebanese Hezbollah militia — well-trained and well-equipped and now battle-tested.

The Shia militia can be directed and deployed by Tehran as needed. There is a fear that Hezbollah will be directed towards the Golan Heights, the border between Syria and Israel.

Since the end of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Golan has remained very quiet, with less than a handful of incidents reported by the UN observer force that has been in place since Henry Kissinger, then US secretary of state, negotiated a ceasefire and an end to hostilities.

Just a day before the Iranian attack on the Golan, the Israeli military asked authorities in the occupied Golan Heights to open missile shelters because of “irregular activity by Iranian forces in Syria” across the demarcation line.

“Additionally, defence systems have been deployed and (Israeli) troops are on high alert,” stated the announcement, made shortly before US President Donald Trump made public his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

Radicals in Iran are having a field day and are likely to continue pushing for a confrontation with their US nemesis. Relations between the United States and Iran are the tensest they have been since the hostage crisis, when Iranians stormed the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, took 52 US diplomats hostage and held them for 444 days.

Will Trump’s policy put the region back to the era of the hostage crisis? Will Iran’s radical mullahs be bellicose enough to push Hezbollah to nettle Israeli positions in the Golan to the point the Jewish state will retaliate in force?

Emboldened by its electoral victory in Lebanon, Hezbollah could show solidarity with Iran by opening a new front to alleviate pressure on Tehran or give it a means for retaliation.

How far and how harsh would the cycle of Israeli-Iranian retaliation and counter-retaliation go? Would Israel limit its response be limited to striking positions in Syria or would it take the fight to Lebanon and Iran?

Some Israeli military officials have called for a devastating blow to Hezbollah’s infrastructure and said Israel should not limit its strikes to Hezbollah targets but should widen its targets to include Lebanese positions.

Following Lebanon’s vote in which the Shia movement and its political allies won more than half of the 128 parliamentary seats, some Israeli officials hinted that Israel should make no difference between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state.

On the other hand, Iran can go further than just igniting a front in Syria and Lebanon. Through its proxy militias, Iran can stir up trouble in Yemen, thus targeting America’s Saudi allies, or yet in Libya and Iraq.

There is no doubt that sanctions will hurt the Iranians, especially the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has a lot to lose when economic sanctions are imposed. It will lose a lot of revenue in an already cash-strapped Iran. The balance of power being what it is in Tehran, a showdown with the United States could create added momentum for escalation, not the other way around. It is unlikely, therefore, the so-called Iranian moderate leaders will dare cut the military’s huge budgets.

The missing trigger to further mayhem could well be the Golan.