Syria is Israel and Iran's battleground

Syria is Israel and Iran's battleground

For some time now there has been a sense of inevitability that the conflict between Israel and Iran, currently taking place in Syria amidst a fog of (im)plausible deniability, will turn into open hostilities conducted in daylight, both literally and figuratively.

Ever since the civil war in Syria began, Iran has steadily increased its menacing military presence in Israel’s war-torn northeastern neighbour. However, the clashes last weekend were extraordinary and set some dangerous precedents.

After years of carrying out attacks under the cloak of night, Israel not only conducted a series of rare daylight air strikes in the Damascus area, but also unprecedently made these public in real time, reportedly killing 12 Iranians. Moreover, although the response—an Iranian-made ground-to-ground missile fired into northern Israel at a time when many Israeli tourists were visiting the snow-covered Hermon mountain—may have been intercepted by an anti-missile system, the situation is nevertheless in danger of quickly spiralling out of control.

For most of the eight years of the Syrian civil war, Israel has been cautious not to admit to its actions in that country, though it has worked hard to ensure that everyone knows it is able to hit Iranian and Hezbollah targets when and where it wants. This constructive ambiguity was aimed partly to prevent Iran and its proxies from building a threatening military presence, and partly, by not bragging about it, to avoid forcing the other side to retaliate. In return, government-controlled Iranian media reports of Israel’s actions against Iranian targets in Syria have been very restrained, with the similar aim of avoiding domestic pressure to respond.  

Over the last year Israel has gradually become less opaque about its aerial attacks in Syria, and in the last two weeks the outgoing Israel Defence Forces chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot has told the New York Times about striking thousands of Iranian targets “without claiming responsibility or asking for credit,” while Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has publicly claimed responsibility for attacking Iranian weapons and ammunition stores in Syria. It might be the case of a retiring general boasting about his legacy, or a prime minister scoring points during a tough election campaign.

For most of the eight years of the Syrian civil war, Israel has been cautious not to admit to its actions in that country, though it has worked hard to ensure that everyone knows it is able to hit Iranian and Hezbollah targets when and where it wants.

Yossi Mekelberg

However, it also the case that the Israeli leadership feels it is safer to be to more blunt in deterring Iran, believing rightly or wrongly that Iran or its proxies won’t risk a war with Israel, and also sending a message to Russia and the United States that the growing involvement of Iran, directly or indirectly, so very close to Israel’s border, should be a source of grave concern to the two global powers, and they had better do something about it, otherwise Israel will. 

If the former Israeli military chief is right—and there is no reason to doubt his claim of intense attacks on Iranian targets over the years—it raises the question of whether Israel’s strategy is to completely eradicate the Iranian presence in Syria, and if this is the case, what is it ready to do to accomplish this objective?

Or, alternatively, will Jerusalem be content with only containing Tehran’s spearhead, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ((IRGC) led by Qasem Soleimani, and its allies the Hezbollah and the Fatemiyoun Division, an IRGC-led militia of Shi’ite Afghans? With Hassan Nasrallah constantly threatening to open a new (old) front from Lebanon, there are tough decisions to be made by Israel’s leaders. What makes the situation even more of a knife-edge is not only that Israel is increasingly operating more openly against Iran, but that the latter is constantly and openly transferring sophisticated weapons directly to Lebanon. Yet, thus far, either due to a decision by its leaders or because of Israel’s constant military pressure, Iran hasn’t managed to establish naval or air bases in Syria, something that lessens its ability to become a major threat to Israel.

Another conundrum for the Israelis, and for every other observer of the Syrian conflict as it approaches some sort of conclusion, concerns Russia’s long-term strategy in Syria and the extent to which Moscow is interested in policing events there. For all its muscle flexing it doesn’t look as if Russia has aspirations beyond ensuring that the Assad regime remains intact, and establishing its own air base and port on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

After the rift with Israel following the downing of the Russian aeroplane last September, it seems as if Moscow has given Israel a green light to operate in Syrian airspace as long as Israel’s air force steers clear of the Russian airbases in the country’s northwest. The combination of not preventing Israel from attacking Iranian targets, but also of reneging on its promise to keep Iranian forces at least at least 60 kilometers away from Israel’s border, is an indication that averting conflict between Israel and Iran is not high on Putin’s agenda.

There is general agreement that no one involved in Syria, Israel and Iran especially, is interested in an all-out war between these two sworn enemies. Nevertheless, the military and verbal provocations flying back and forth between the two have all the hallmarks of an unintended and miscalculated disaster waiting to happen. It doesn’t help that all of this is taking place amidst election fever in Israel, where the current prime minister, who is also the defence and foreign minister, is battling both to survive in power and to avoid going on trial over corruption allegations. As a vote winner, Netanyahu might be tempted to increase his ‘Mr. Security’ image with a ‘splendid little war’ against Iranian forces and their allies in Syria.

Such a scenario could destabilise the entire region, and it is for Russia and the United States to send a clear message to both sides that they will not tolerate it.


  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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