Israel and Iran square off in Syria

Israel and Iran square off in Syria

A mysterious large-scale explosion, on Saturday shook Mount Azzan, south of Aleppo, in northern Syria; but despite huge flashes, a Syrian source denied there was a military strike, claiming, instead that the enormous explosion was due to an electrical short circuit. This naive justification, however, failed to conceal the fact that an attack took place, and since no one claimed responsibility, it was quite likely caused by an Israeli air strike. 

What is significant is that the area targeted is home to a depot - said to be one of the biggest in the country – which was reportedly being used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah. The occupants, seem to have evacuated it at a hurry, fearing an American attack after the White House had declared its intention to retaliate against the Damascus regime’s use of chemical weapons on the town of Douma.

Just hours earlier, the US, Britain and France had launched a series of strikes on a number of military targets belonging to the Bashar Assad regime. The targets included a scientific research facility near Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of the city of Homs, and a third location near Homs that contained both a command post and a chemical weapons storage facility. However, the Israeli attacks focused on Iranian targets rather than the regime’s forces. As for the Russian troops, of course, they were not a target and, in turn, Moscow neither intercepted nor challenged the air strikes in defense of its allies.

These developments represent a new direction on the Syrian civil war scene. Last Friday, the Israeli government recalled an Iranian reconnaissance drone’s incursion into its airspace in February, which it considered as a dangerous precedent. “It puts the two countries in direct open military confrontation for the first time,” an official said. The Israeli government also noted that analysis showed that the intercepted drone was not being used merely for reconnaissance, but was sent as part of a military operation — a development considered serious in the war in Syria.

The current escalation can shuffle all the cards, especially now that the Israelis have finally adopted a policy of confronting Iran in Syria. Previously, the IRGC announced the deaths of seven of its members during an April 9 Israeli retaliatory strike on the T-4 air base from which the drone was controlled. But Tehran did not respond in kind, and its Russian ally did not defend it.

Today, the pressure on Iran is so massive that, unless it announces a partial withdrawal from Syria, we are set to witness another round of regional war on Syrian soil.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

These developments bring to mind the ‘jubilant’ smiling image of the three presidents — Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani — who met in Ankara two weeks ago celebrating their presumed ‘victory’, only to now see the situation complicated by the ‘tripartite’ US-British-French operation and the Israeli intervention. It may also change after the ‘tripartite’ strike in retaliation against Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and the Israeli intervention after the Iranian drone incident.

Actually, the February drone incident was the first direct Iranian confrontation with Israel after years of Tehran employing Lebanese and Palestinian proxies to target the Jewish state. This has encouraged the Israeli government to intervene cautiously but more effectively than ever before. The Israeli operation may have been of a much smaller scale than the ‘tripartite’ operation; however, its targets may prove to be more decisive and significant.

Here it is worth recalling that the Israeli government has stood almost idly by through the 7 years of the Syrian war; only warning the combatants off its ‘borders’ areas. As for the combatants, including Daesh, Jabhat Al-Nusra and the IRGC, they always obliged, with few exceptions. when limited confrontations took place. 

A state of ongoing war raging between its enemies suited Israel well. However, with Iran – in particular – winning the day, and Turkey satisfying itself with cleansing its border areas of Kurdish rebels, the Israelis had to rethink their strategy. 

The Iranian leadership’s strategy has been to extend its control over the lands west of Iran, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, which would give it a negotiating advantage with Tel Aviv. This has been Tehran’s old project in Lebanon and Gaza, carried out by Hezbollah and Hamas. 

So far, Israeli attacks have been few, mainly, targeting the IRGC and its militias, i.e., Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq’s ‘Assa’eb Ahl Al-Haqq, the Afghan Fatemiyyoun, and others. And although not much information usually comes out after Israeli strikes, from both the hitter and the target, there is always enough that filters out from other sources. But now it is quite likely that even the Syrian armed opposition may benefit from the changing situation, and resume its operations.

Today, the pressure on Iran is so massive that, unless it announces a partial withdrawal from Syria, we are set to witness another round of regional war on Syrian soil, this time against Iran and Hezbollah. Furthermore, let us not forget that Iran’s economy continues to suffer after years of crippling sanctions, with the national currency hitting an all-time low.

— Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is a veteran columnist. He is the former general manager of Al Arabiya news channel, and former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @aalrashed

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