This week saw a marked escalation in the conflict between Iran and Syria. After Tuesday’s Israeli strike targeting Iranian bases and forces in Syria, Iran responded by firing twenty ineffective rockets at Israel. Israel’s riposte came in the form of Thursday’s more extensive barrage of attacks on dozens of Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) positions in Syria, killing some 42 people including 19 Iranians.
Besides the risk of inter-state war, the increased tensions jeopardize all the recent gains of the Assad regime in Syria’s long-running civil war. How far will each actor go in pursuing its interests in Syria, and why have tensions grown so markedly this past week?
Since the beginning of Syria’s civil war, Israel has struck targets in Syria on approximately one hundred different occasions. These targets generally consisted of weapons convoys destined for Lebanese Hezbollah, top Hezbollah or IRGC personnel, a secret Syrian nuclear site under construction, and Syrian or rebel rocket sites responsible for fire into Israeli territory.
Israel has generally avoided targeting Syrian government forces, however. Since the start of the civil war in Syria, Jerusalem’s outlook remained ambivalent about the Assad regime. Although Assad’s Syria remains a bitter enemy, with memories of the 1973 hard-fought war between the two still prominent, Israeli decision makers did not envision an improvement in the situation should Sunni Islamist rebels topple him. A radical Sunni Islamist government in Damascus might even represent a much worse outcome for Israel, given that the Assad regime at least kept the border between Israel and Syria (if not Israel and Lebanon) quiet from 1973 to 2011.
Israelis thus saw little reason to risk precious resources backing one side or the other in the Syrian civil war. The only Syrian faction the Israelis like are the Kurds – but with little way to reach or supply the cantons of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira, such sympathy does not appear to translate into much tangible Israeli support for Syrian Kurds.
With the Syrian civil war winding down in Assad’s favor, however, Iran appears intent in translating all its support for Assad (in the form of money, weapons, effort and even tens of thousands of Shiite fighters) into a more robust, permanent presence in Syria. The establishment in Syria of Iranian bases, missile sites and frontline positions facing Israel poses an unacceptable risk for the Israeli government.
Iranian leaders, after all, regularly threaten to “erase Israel from the map.” Iran also created and grew the Lebanese Hezbollah movement into a major threat to Israel. Even after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah continued to launch rockets into Israel and conduct raids across the border.
Iran, via Hezbollah, was also the likely culprit behind many attacks on Israeli tourists and Jewish civilians abroad, from Argentina to Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Cyprus and elsewhere. The Buenos Aires attacks of 1992 and 1994 – targeting the Israeli embassy and an Argentinian Jewish Community Center – killed 114 people and injured hundreds more.
With all this in mind, the Iranians probably underestimated Israeli willingness to intervene in Syria against them. While there is little Israel can do about the Iranian presence in Iraq or other places further afield, Syria remains right next door and quite familiar to the Israelis.
As Seth Frantzman observed in the Jerusalem Post this week, Israel also has the capacity to undo all the work and investments an over-extended Iran put into Syria: “Since 2011, when protests broke out against Assad, Tehran has been one of the regime’s main backers. Up to 80,000 volunteers have been trained by Iran in Syria, some of them brought from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan. This has been a massive financial investment at a time when Iran is just recovering from the sanctions relief of the nuclear deal and its currency is trading at all-time lows. The more Iran builds and invests in Syria, the more it stands to lose. It found that out in the first hours of May 10 when Israel attacked numerous Iranian targets, carrying out its largest operations in recent history … Reports indicate that ‘nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure’ in Syria was hit, totaling between thirty and fifty sites.”
As a result, Iran will prove unlikely to escalate more directly against Israel. Especially if it did so from Syria, the results would not go well for Tehran. Instead, we might expect more indirect Iranian attempts to deter and exact “payback” against the Israelis. This, of course, probably means more terrorist bombings on soft targets abroad.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.