On 10 February 2018, an Israeli F16 was downed in Syria following an Israeli strike on Syrian and Iranian positions inside Syria. The strike was in retaliation for an Iranian drone – allegedly carrying explosives – that crossed into Israeli airspace hours earlier. Two months later, in another Israeli strike on the Syrian T4 airbase in Homs province, seven Iranian ‘military advisers’ were killed. Iran vowed to retaliate and almost a month later, a missile barrage showered Israeli positions in the contested Golan Heights. Although Iran did not confirm its involvement, its rhetoric and Lebanese allied Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on the matter – claiming the exact number of missiles to be 55 – points in Iran’s direction. Once again, Israeli fighter jets launched numerous attacks on Iranian positions and forces inside Syria. Escalation is therefore a reality in the Israel- Iran confrontations in Syria. The question is why now? And where does the escalation stop?
The extremist group Islamic State (IS) provided a wide range of actors – including Iran and the United States (US) – with a common enemy. Iran’s main focus besides IS is on supporting the Syrian regime. Iran’s Syria campaign is based on the premise that the fall of the regime will have a domino effect on its other allies, namely Hezbollah and Iraq, leading all the way to Iran’s borders. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that if Iran did not fight the “terrorists” in Syria and Iraq, it would have to fight them in its own cities. General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, claimed that IS was forced to harm Iran not Syria. In another speech, in what seemed to be a bid to rally support, Soleimani said that the takfiris (enemies of Islam) want to demolish the shrine of Lady Zeinab, a holy shrine for Shiites all over the world. Therefore, though multidimensional, the rationale of Iran’s involvement is focused on Iran’s national security more than anything else, including the threat to the Islamic regime posed by Israel, the so-called Little Satan.
Israel, however, viewed the Syrian crisis from a different perspective. Although war and crisis on its borders kept its security and military elites focused on Syria, as long as the crisis was to weaken Syria and its allies in the so-called ‘axis of resistance’, the trouble was welcomed. Therefore, Israel lived with the situation until the fall of IS. In the meantime, Israeli air strikes on Syria – allegedly against Iranian arms shipments to Lebanon – became common and frequent. This would change in the aftermath of IS and weakened opposition forces in Syria.
With IS more or less out of the picture and the Syrian opposition in retreat, both Iran’s and Israel’s Syria calculus has been changing. The fact that the regime and its allies are seen to be winning would not have been so disturbing for Israel had (pro-) Iranian forces not been so involved in it. In other words, Israel fears a proliferation of a Hezbollah-style model on its border with Syria with the help of Iranian forces present there. Therefore, it is focusing on Iran’s ‘military build-up’, including Hezbollah’s presence in Syria, as a long-term threat – a view shared by the US.
While the stakes are high for Israel, Tehran could not have been more pleased with the outcome in Syria, which has elevated its regional position and cemented its reputation as the main backer of the Syrian regime. At the same time, Iranian strategists note Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s premise that the war is not over yet. On the one hand, the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated SDF controls huge swathes of Syrian territory;, on the other, the remaining opposition forces are still in control of Idlib province on the border with Turkish-occupied territory in northern Syria.
As such, Iran has in recent months focused on helping its allies to conquer the remaining enclaves within the regime-held areas such as Ghouta and Yarmouk in Damascus, and expressed its intention to support the Syrian regime in conquering Idlib and other places ‘under occupation in Syria’. As a result, confronting Israel seems far from an Iranian priority right now.
For Israel, however, Iran’s priorities do not change the nature of the threat so long as the strategic calculus remains the same. Accordingly, a confrontation with Iran is foreseeable. Israel’s rationale for escalating its response to Iran’s presence in Syria is based on the premise that hammering Iran in Syria is more feasible while Tehran is confronting other challenges and enemies than after its position in Syria is consolidated. That said, there might be another consideration. As some analysts have suggested, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu desperately wants to distract attention from the corruption case closing in on him at home. Still, playing the Iran – or indeed any other external card – can only serve such a purpose temporarily.
Iran’s non-Israel priorities cannot at this point diminish Israel’s perception of its ongoing threat. Like-wise, Israeli air strikes alone will not lead to Iran’s expulsion from Syrians. Therefore, there needs to be another solution to ease Israeli fears of the Iranian presence on its Syrian border. While negotiating a way out with Russia has made headlines recently, this only seems to get Iranian forces out of Syria’s southwestern territories – and not from the entire country.
Syria will thus remain a problem for Israel. As such, one can envisage Israel taking the confrontation to a new level by invading Syria to force Iran out of the country. The repercussions of such a scenario could be catastrophic.
One can easily imagine Iran and Hezbollah rallying behind the Syrian regime to preserve the status quo on the one hand and to elevate their position and reputation by standing up to an Israeli attack on the other. There are high-level speeches to back that premise. Ayatollah Khamenei has said time and again that Iran will not turn a blind eye to an aggression. Hassan Nasrallah said in a direct and unprecedented statement of deterrence that if Israel attacks Syria, Israel will be attacked in return. Neither Iran nor Hezbollah has ever deterred or even spoke about deterring Israel on behalf of Syria. Therefore, while Israel is focusing on degrading the ‘axis of resistance’ threat on its Syrian border, its adversaries are drawing red lines that once crossed could lead to an all-out war. The risk of this happening can be contained if both parties at least agree not to cross the other’s red lines. But if the situation escalates, as the recent case of south-western Syria suggests it might, international mediation – like the Russian one – will be needed to prevent a war.