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Why war between Israel and Iran is likely in Syria

Jan 29,2019 - Last updated at Jan 29,2019

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s admittance last week that Israel had carried out massive airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria, including a weapons’ depot in Damascus airport, marked a major change in policy. For years, the Israeli air force had been carrying out attacks against suspected Iranian and Hizbollah positions in Syria without claiming responsibility.

The January 20 strikes were triggered by the firing of a surface-to-surface missile from inside Syria towards the occupied Golan Heights, according to Israeli sources. It was met with unusual firepower from Israel, which launched dozens of missiles, from Lebanese airspace, towards selected targets. Israel showed videos of a Syrian surface-to-air battery being destroyed, among other objectives. Syria said it had intercepted dozens of missiles; a claim that was corroborated by Moscow as well.

Following the Israeli attack, Netanyahu was quoted as saying that “whoever tries to harm us, we will harm them. Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility”. Going public was seen as a message to the Syrian regime, Iran and the Russians. Moscow had deployed the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Syria last October following a series of Israeli attacks.

But Netanyahu, who is fighting for his political survival ahead of crucial elections in April, may be risking more than he can handle. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that “the practice of arbitrary strikes on the territory of a sovereign state, in this case, we are talking about Syria, should be ruled out”. Israel had claimed in the past that it had reached an agreement with Moscow, under which they have made clear that their strikes on Syria would not threaten the regime of President Bahsar Assad. In return, the Russians said that they will work to limit Iranian influence in the country. Behind-the-scene negotiations had succeeded in driving back Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and pro-Iran proxies from Israeli borders.

But Israel now believes that Hizbollah and fighters belonging to Al Quds force may be repositioning themselves close to the Golan Heights. The launching of a missile into Israeli occupied Golan could be seen as a game changer.

Iran had responded to Israeli threats saying that it was ready for the fight. The Syrian representative at the UN also said that if the international community does not intervene to stop Israeli strikes, then Syria has the right to bomb Tel Aviv airport. This latest escalation comes at a time when the US is finishing plans to withdraw from north-eastern Syria, and when Moscow is calling on uninvited foreign troops to pull out from that country.

It is difficult to assess what kind of leverage, if any, the Assad regime has on Iranians present in his country. Certainly, the regime is not looking for a fight with Israel, not now and not in the near future. But the complexity of the Syrian crisis over the past seven years has altered the geopolitical realities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia now has permanent military bases in that country, and in many ways it is responsible for its security and durability. The Iranians and their proxies believe that their intervention on behalf of the regime has tipped the balance of power in the region.

While Moscow has no interest in seeing an outbreak of open hostilities between Israel and Syria, its ability to control the Iranians is in doubt. Tehran is under pressure from the US and even the Europeans to change its behaviour, but hardliners see their presence in Iraq and Syria as a major asset in the fight against their enemies.

For Israel, election fever aside, the Iranian presence in Syria, in addition to the present danger of Hizbollah constitutes an existential threat. There are reports that many of the Sunni fighters in the now-disbanded extremist groups in southern Syrian have joined Hizbollah’s ranks. The fact that Hizbollah is seeking to bolster its presence close to the Golan Heights cannot be disputed.

Appearing on a pro-Iran TV station on Saturday, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel over its continued attacks in Syria, saying a miscalculation could drag the region into a war. Claiming that his group was in possession of precision missiles that could hit Tel Aviv, Nasrallah said that his group could cross into the Galilee, in northern Israel, “in reaction to an Israeli attack” in a future war. He warned that any war can be waged on more than one front, referring to Israel’s threats to Lebanon and Syria.

This brinkmanship by both sides has raised the level of potential confrontation to its highest level since 2006, when Israel and Hizbollah fought a bloody war that tested both. Since then, the geopolitical conditions have changed drastically with claims that Hizbollah’s missile arsenal now pose a genuine threat to the heart of Israel. What is happening in Syria is a high-stakes face-off that could easily develop into a major conflagration. The audacious reality is that no outside power has the ability to defuse a febrile situation and prevent a looming war.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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