The long regional rivalry between Israel and Iran has undergone a dramatic escalation and has seen Israel directly target Iranian facilities in Syria, raising the possibility of an undeclared war becoming an intra-state one. The history of the relations between the two countries is a febrile one, not helped by the fact that the United States is a close Israeli ally and arch-critic of Iran. For their part, Iranian leaders have consistently referred to the United States as the ‘Great Satan’. This should rightly be seen as dangerous for Israel and Iran both, and while there is potential for things to escalate further, both countries have enough to lose to prevent them from engaging in an all-out war. It doesn’t stop them from adding to the complexity and carnage of the war in Syria.
The revival of government fortunes in Syria has been heavily dependent on support from Iran and Russia, allowing them to take control of the cities that had been lost to the opposition. It is Iran that has raised foreign militias, deployed the Quds Force (the special forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) and supported Hezbollah, a Lebanese political/military organisation. Without Iranian support the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) had been on the back foot, having been too small to fight the insurgency and losing defectors to the opposition ranks. Iran has been bitterly opposed to the state of Israel and its United States backers since the Iranian revolution of 1979, to the point of its more hard-line leaders denying that Israel even has the right to exist. Relations between the United States and Iran have been dismal since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, which swapped a US-backed dictator for a fundamentalist theocracy. Hezbollah was formed with Iranian backing in the 1980s with the specific goal of fighting the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon and became a major social, political and military actor, fighting a war with Israel in 2008. They remain bitterly opposed to Israel and while seen as Iranian proxies in the Israel versus Iran regional rivalry are independent actors capable of pursuing their own agenda and have considerable strength in Lebanon, with a military capability rivalling that of the Lebanese Army.
The presence of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria is of serious concern to Israel. The geo-political rivalry between Israel and Iran is arguably as intense as that between Iran and Saudi Arabia, although Israel’s position is based on the security dilemma of survival as opposed to expanding its influence regionally. Israeli reaction to anything deemed a threat is to respond punitively and disproportionately and it is an understatement to say that the movement of Iranian and Hezbollah military supplies in Syria is seen as a threat. Above all, there is concern over Hezbollah’s rockets and missiles, which have been targeted in undeclared airstrikes on arms dumps and it did not stretch the imagination or risk making a false assumption for the most sober of commentators to point the finger of blame firmly in the direction of Israel. This undeclared war took a major turn in 2018 and thus far has been relatively one sided, even if the rhetoric has not.
The alleged incursion of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace in February led to Israeli airstrikes, the downing of an Israeli aircraft and crippling damage to Syria’s air defences as a consequence. In April, while the United States, United Kingdom and France prevaricated over acting over allegations of government chemical weapons use, Israel struck the T4 airbase in Syria. Then an alleged firing of rockets by Iranian forces into the Israeli occupied Golan Heights triggered a major aerial assault on Iranian military targets across Syria in May. While Iranian targets have been struck previously, alongside any Syrian facilities or forces that got in the way, these events were part of a trend in which the aim of preventing arms reaching Hezbollah in Lebanon has been accompanied by the aim of reducing Iran’s military footprint in Syria. Israel has remained neutral as regards the outcome of Syria’s war, having a historical enmity with the Assad regime but also caring little for the opposition either, striking Syria’s air defences only due to the threat that they pose to Israeli aircraft.
A further escalation to direct warfare between Israel and Iran is one that would benefit neither, leaving their rivalry to be pursued within the confines of Syria’s complex war. While Iran’s military footprint in Syria has been damaged it is still functioning and it is unlikely to want to risk its gains in Syria and Iraq while it is able to support its proxies such as Hezbollah. For its part, Israel will settle for keeping Iranian forces at a distance and destroying the arms bound for Hezbollah, which it reasonably assumes are as likely to be fired at Israel as they are at the Syrian opposition. Yet, both are at risk of overreaching and triggering an intra-state war. Iran has arguably made great gains from the wars in Syria and Iraq, expanding its influence at great cost in material and manpower, but drawing the ire of both Israel and Saudi Arabia in doing so. This leaves it overstretched and overcommitted, a mistake all too common in international relations. Israel, with enough problems of its own domestically, assumes that it can continue to act with impunity over Syria and pursue a one-sided military exchange that affects Iran’s goals in Syria and damages Iranian military assets. This may work in the short term and may indeed be a long term strategy of the application of force to persuade Iran to reduce its footprint in Syria and stop its supplies to Hezbollah. It is not guaranteed to work in the long term and may provoke an escalation in response, whether it is Iranian entrenchment in Syria and further support for Hezbollah, or a change in strategy to counter Israel’s aerial supremacy.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator