Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

War drums in Syria

Iran’s harassment of Israel in Syria has led to a strong Israeli response that may turn the Syrian crisis into a regional war, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus


War drums in Syria
War drums in Syria

Israel attacked some 50 Iranian military locations in Syria on 10 May, including intelligence and logistical facilities, in response to Iranian strikes against Israel. Unofficial Syrian military sources said key targets had included the Al-Mazza military airport and the headquarters of the Fourth and Tenth military brigades.

Israel said it had targeted “all the Iranian military infrastructure in Syria,” according to Israeli Minister of Defence Avigdor Lieberman.

Israeli army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said the pro-Iran Al-Quds Force had fired long-range missiles towards the frontlines of the Israeli army in the Golan Heights on the border with Syria and that Tel Aviv had informed Moscow about its counter-strikes beforehand.

Syrian state media made little of the Israeli strikes, with the government news agency quoting a military source as saying that “some” Israeli missiles had struck air-defence sites but “dozens” of missiles had been intercepted.

The US condemned the “provocative missile strikes” by Iran in Syria, supporting Israel’s “right to defend itself” by saying the strikes were an “unacceptable development and a threat to the entire Middle East”.

It blamed the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) for the “consequences of its reckless actions”. The incident gave the US another opportunity to escalate its rhetoric against Iran, coming two days after US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal.

Most Western countries condemned Iran, demanding that Russia use its influence in Syria to prevent any more attacks. Russia tried to calm the situation and play a neutral role in mediating between Iran and Israel. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was urging restraint and wanted to see Israel and Iran resolve their differences through diplomacy.

Russia’s real position is difficult to ascertain, but it implicitly wants to weaken the Iranian influence in Syria. It will therefore not object to Israel’s targeting Iran’s presence in the country, especially its ally the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, at some military locations.

The confrontation was an opportunity for the Arab countries to reassert the importance of an Arab role in the Syrian conflict, saying that the Arabs must have a role in regional security. Egypt said its military forces in Syria should be replaced by Arab troops, and the situation should be reviewed by the Arab states.

Iran tried to deny its responsibility for the attacks on Israel, blaming the Syrian regime. Deputy Chairman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Abul-Fadl Hassan Baiji denied that Iran was behind the strikes against the Israeli locations in the Golan Heights in comments that were a notable development in relations between the Syrian regime and Iran.

On 10 February, for the first time in 40 years an Israeli jet was shot down by fire from Syria in a score-settling exercise between Iran and Israel and not in a move by the Syrian regime.

This event, along with those this month, raises questions about Iran’s true role in Syria and its link to confrontations with Israel, the level of coordination between Russia and the US, the possible repercussions of the confrontations, the position of the major world powers and the possible escalation between Iran and Israel.

Russia does not benefit from strikes against Israel since it signed a military coordination agreement with the country in September 2015 that created a “channel to exchange information” about developments in Syria.

The two countries have no disputes over specific areas, and the Russian presence in Syria does not harm Israel. The Israeli strikes against Iranian military positions do not harm Russia as long as the Syria regime is not weakened.

It is likely that the actions by Iran are a message to the US that Tehran does not want to escalate into an open war with Israel, but that Iran’s role in Syria should be taken into account in any peace negotiations.

Iran could drag Israel into a war in Syria unless its interests are taken into consideration when carving up interests in Syria, and it will want to block any attempt to sideline it, especially in the light of reports about Russian-Israeli and Russian-US deals to curb Iran’s influence in Syria.

On 17 January, then US secretary of state Rex Tillerson announced a new US strategy in Syria, including the US decision to remain in the country and not to repeat “the mistakes of 2011 in Iraq” when the US left the country wide open to Iranian domination.

The US strategy rejects any Iranian presence in Syria and aims to prevent Tehran from achieving its plans to extend its influence in the region. It is a covert threat to Iran that it will not be allowed to take control of Syria.

Washington also declared on 14 January through the US-led Coalition in Syria that it is working on creating a military force in the country for deployment along the border with Turkey in the north and Iraq in the southeast.

This force will intercept the path of Iranian militias and weapons to Syria, preventing movement from Iraq to Syria or Lebanon and breaking up Iran’s vaunted “Shiite Crescent” to the Mediterranean.

The de-escalation deal in southern Syria also primarily targets pro-Iran militias, stipulating that they must stay at least 40 km away from the border with Israel. On his last visit to Moscow on 29 January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed Tel Aviv’s concerns, including the Iranian weapons installations in Syria, Hizbullah’s presence in the country, and the presence of Iranian militias close to the line of disengagement in the Golan Heights.

This background explains Iran’s rash tactics in Syria, with or without the support of its allies, which are designed to maintain its regional influence at a cost thus far of billions of dollars and the large-scale destruction of its economy as well as of its relations with other countries.

Iran is taking a huge gamble by even considering an open war with Israel in Syria because its economy is very weak. Protests in early 2018 demanding that the Iranian regime stop interfering in the affairs of other countries continue to disturb Tehran.

Israel does not see Iran’s actions in Syria as a threat because the destruction of Syria, in which Iran has played a major role, serves its goals. Israel wants an Iranian role in Syria as long as it remains within specific boundaries, but Hizbullah bases cannot be part of the package since Israel continues to attack these if the group crosses its red lines.

Despite a state of “no-war, no-peace” between Israel, the Syrian regime and Iran, Tel Aviv is becoming concerned at the Iranian military presence in Syria, which includes military bases and airports, weapons depots, economic measures and facilities to manufacture long-range missiles belonging to Hizbullah.

Israel, the US, the West and many Arab countries are concerned about the Iranian presence in Syria, but Iran is not being confronted on its own territory. These players are using Syria as the battleground for a regional and international conflict, and the Syrian people are paying a heavy price.

Either there will be a wider confrontation with Tehran, or there will be more serious action against the Syrian regime, which has given Iran the opportunity to meddle throughout the Middle East.

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