Last week’s showdown between Iran and Israel in and over Syria is not expected to be the last. But, could such showdowns, if repeated, provoke an all-out war? Though the two countries have avoided any serious clashes in the past, Israel’s retaliatory attack on almost all major Iranian military targets inside Syria represents the biggest direct confrontation between the two countries in their history.
So far both countries have indicated that neither wishes to engage in such a war, but the confrontation is going to occur on two fronts.
First, the latest attack happened on a pretty large scale as the Israelis have targeted every Iranian site they could have identified inside Syria. These targets were clearly shown in red dots covering Syrian territories from north-west of the country to the south. None of the targets were Syrian but Iranian army installations and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) units.
For the Israelis, a lot of business has been done in a few hours which is something Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been itching to do for a long time but restrained by Washington. Netanyahu was also concerned prior to the attack not to upset Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
But the main concern on the part of the Israeli was what they saw as security threat coming from Hezbollah in the north, as well as Iran’s increasing military presence and political influence in Syria.
So, the attack, as the Israelis saw it, was a pre-emptive move given a long Israeli tradition of pre-empting strikes against whatever they consider as becoming possible danger. The seven-day Arab-Israel struggle is a clear testimony to this Israeli policy. Iran regards its build-up in Syria, directly and by proxy through Hezbollah’s and other foreign militias, as crucial to it expanding its influence in the Levant as well as the Gulf.
Second, actions against targets inside Iran itself should not be ruled out with an ambitious aim of a regime change. Given what’s the American President Donald Trump has said and already done on the nuclear deal, now we have got a US — unlike the previous administration which constantly tried to restrain the Israelis from bellicosity towards Iran — with a president almost more eager than Netanyahu to go after the Iranian regime itself. Given the excuse or half-excuse, we should expect some kind of strikes by Israel and the US on targets inside Iran.
This probably explains the conciliatory tone of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani after the Israeli strike against Iranian targets inside Syria last week, in a telephone call with German’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. In a statement on the president’s website, Rouhani said: “We don’t want tension in the Middle East. Iran always sought to reduce tensions in the region to strengthen security and stability.”
It is interesting to see how the Russians responded to the latest strike. They simply have done nothing to protect their co-conspirator in Syria. It is exceptionally significant to know that the Israelis have informed the Russians of their attacks on the Iranian targets.
This Russian-Israeli liaison was further strengthened during Netanyahu’s latest visit to Moscow after the attacks. Netanyahu has so far met Putin eight times since Russians re-established their military presence in Syria in 2015. The excellent bilateral relations are helping both Israel and Russia in keeping Iran in check. It is no longer a secret that Russia regularly fed intelligence about Iranian military positions in Syria to Israel before the latter targeted these positions. This happened at least in two occasions in late April and May.
After the April attack Iran publicly admitted the death of 18 soldiers but Syrian sources quoted by a researcher at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, Linda Khatib, “said the number was closer to 200.”
From the Russian point of view, Iran has been very useful in helping Moscow to prop up the Al Assad regime, helping in taking out the regime’s opponents and assisting along the way in taking out Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] with US and western allies. However, Iran was useful for the Russian agenda in that phase of the war but now the situation has remarkably changed.
With Iran influencing Syrian politics, Tehran has presumably become unsuitable for the Russians. Therefore, one would assume what the Israelis have done to the Iranians, in reducing their clout inside Syria, is a welcome development by Moscow.
But this does not mean that Iran is necessarily on the way out of Syria soon. Its forces and proxy militias as well as its financial and economic influence, are still well entrenched in the country’s politics. With all the big international and regional players involvement in Syria’s wars, and as the Americans are pulling out of Iran’s nuclear deal by effectively pronouncing it dead, the region could be entering a phase of big confrontation almost like what the Americans did 15 years ago in 2003.
With hawks such as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo undermining the moderates with the administration, we will wait and see whether Trump will adopt a policy of remaking Iran, as his predecessor George W. Bush tried — but miserably failed — to do 15 years ago in Iraq. For this to happen it fundamentally requires changing Iranian power in the region either by direct confrontation, additional political and economic pressure or both.
However, the pressure on Iran is mounting as it is now almost physically surrounded in Syria with its role is increasingly becoming redundant in the Russian view. None of the other international and regional players, Turkey in the north-western Syria, Israel and Jordan in the south and the US-sponsored multi-Kurdish-Arab Syrian Defence Forces in the north-east, wants to see any durable or substantial Iranian presence in the country.
Mustapha Karkouti is a columnist and former president of the Foreign Press Association, London. Twitter: @mustaphatache