Washington could determine next stage of Israel-Iran escalation

Much relies on the US renewing its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Tuesday 01/05/2018
A picture from social media showing fire in what purported to be the Mountain 47 region, countryside south of Hama city, Syria, on April 29. (Abody Ahfad Khaled via Reuters).
A picture from social media showing fire in what purported to be the Mountain 47 region, countryside south of Hama city, Syria, on April 29. (Abody Ahfad Khaled via Reuters).

TUNIS - As the world’s powers compete for territory and influence within Syria, their rivalries risk being subsumed by the escalating conflict between Israel and Iran on Syrian soil.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Iran had been “lying” over its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the West. Adding to this were  the supposed Israeli missile strikes on Iranian positions within Syria, killing as many as 16 people, many of whom were thought to be Iranian.

Since 2005, Iran has confronted Israel indirectly, preferring to deploy the forces of its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. However, following the confrontation between the two powers in Syria in February, which left 25 people dead and one Israeli jet downed, there were disputes. An Israeli strike April 9 on an Iranian position at the T4 air base in Homs governorate left seven Iranians dead, according to Iran's Tasnim news agency. On April 29, an alleged Israeli missile attack reportedly claimed more.

Tehran has yet to respond but the strike forces of Hezbollah have been reported to be massing in Syria’s south near the Israeli border. CNN reported its reporters witnessed a similar Israeli build-up on the opposing side of the frontier.

Writing in the United Kingdom Independent newspaper, international affairs reporter Patrick Cockburn suggested the review of the nuclear deal figured highly in the thinking of policymakers in Tehran and Tel Aviv.

For Tehran, reluctant to provide US President Donald Trump with cause to withdraw from the 2015 deal, it may have appeared prudent to not retaliate. Tel Aviv, acutely aware of the importance of the deal to its adversaries, might have been willing to gamble on Iran’s quiescence ahead of the May 12 deadline, when Trump must announce a decision on whether to recertify the agreement.

The risks of an escalation that could pull the United States and Russia into opposing sides of the regional conflict are high. Any calculation based on Iran’s passivity might not apply beyond the May 12 deadline.

Iran has proven itself capable of delaying its response to any action before, both in Lebanon in 1982 and Iraq in 2003, and is unlikely to stand by passively if it feels its regional gains are under threat.

“Iranian retaliation is on its way,” retired Israeli Major-General Amos Yadlin, the executive director of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, told CNN. Pointing to two positions over Syria, he noted: “The strategic position and determination of Iran to build advanced military forces in Syria, and the Israeli determination not to let that happen.” Neither position, beyond immediate concerns over Iran’s nuclear deal, looks to have changed.

For Israel, the timing is ideal. Tel Aviv can rely on the unflinching support of the United States. Saudi Arabia is unlikely to resist any move that may limit the reach of its regional rival in Tehran. Egypt, the one remaining Arab superpower to make the Palestine-Israeli conflict an issue of policy, is more concerned with protecting the Sinai from terrorist infiltration than regional manoeuvring of its opponents and allies.

Only Russia remains as a potential intermediary. Al-Monitor reported it may have used its April 25-26 National Security Council meeting in Sochi to bring both sides together and establish a dialogue.

So much relies on the United States renewing its commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal and that answer will be decided within Washington.