Are Israel and Iran about to clash head-on over Syria?

by Scott Lucas and Umer Karim

Scott Lucas is Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham

Umer Karim is PhD Candidate, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Birmingham

 

Just two weeks after missile attacks by the US, UK and France, a series of explosions rocked three Syrian government military positions in northwest Syria on April 29. At one of the sites, the 47th Brigade base south of Hama, at least 18 Iranian Revolutionary Guards were killed, with more personnel wounded. Few onlookers thought there was any mystery about which country carried out these attacks.

As is standard practice, Israel has not claimed responsibility for the airstrikes, but the attacks appear to be the latest in a series of operations which have targeted Iranian personnel as well as the transfer of missiles and weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

In December 2017, Israel destroyed a base near Damascus that was reportedly being developed by the Iranians. Then on February 10, 2018, Israeli warplanes struck a number of sites inside Syria. Among them was the T-4 base near Palmyra, from which an Iranian command centre was said to have operated a drone over Israeli airspace; in early April, Israel targeted the base yet again.

Israeli ministers, including prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defence minster Avigdor Liberman, have accompanied the attacks with warnings that a long-term Iranian military presence in Syria will not be tolerated. Hours before the latest explosions, Liberman reiterated that: “We will maintain freedom of operation in all of Syria … We will prevent Iran from establishing a forward base in Syria at any cost.”

Iran has been instrumental in the survival of the Assad regime since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. Since then, Israel has used its air power to disrupt weapons supplies to Hezbollah and maintain a buffer zone in the southwest, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. But now it seems things are heating up. Is this now a far bigger, more direct confrontation in the Syrian arena?

The southern flashpoint

The Syrian conflict is now in its eighth year, and changing fast. Since December 2016, the Assad regime has pulled back from what looked like near collapse. Thanks to Russian airstrikes and Iranian ground forces, it has overcome the rebel presence in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, eroded opposition territory in northwest Syria, and now wrested full control over the opposition enclave of East Ghouta near Damascus. With sieges, scorched earth operations, and chemical and incendiary attacks as well as conventional ones, the regime has finally removed the threat to its seat of power.

So far, Israel has tolerated the territorial shift in Assad’s favour, all too aware that Assad’s fall could leave a power vacuum. It can even accept that the regime is set to retain control not just of Damascus, but of much of the rest of Syria, too. That toleration has been helped by a working agreement with Russia that the conflict will not move towards the Golan Heights, a move that might well involve Iranian-led militia and Hezbollah personnel.

But now an emboldened Assad regime is looking for its next target, and it might well see one in southern Syria, where the opposition holds a belt of territory along the Jordanian border – including Daraa, the city where protests sparked the uprising in March 2011. A deescalation zone has been set up in the area, and a fragile truce is in place, but a government offensive could upend it. And even more importantly, no such offensive could be successfully pursued without the involvement of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, leading foreign militias and Hezbollah.

The recent Israeli airstrikes already show a concern that Iran could position its proxy militias right next to the strategic Golan Heights and pose a significant challenge to Israeli national security. The southern offensive would add proximity to that worry. This is the geography behind an ominous warning Netanyahu issued in February:

Israel will not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck. We will act without hesitation to defend ourselves. And we will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.

The only actor that has open lines of communication with both sides is Russia. All Israeli activity in Syrian skies has been coordinated with Moscow, and Russia’s S-400 missile systems, deployed to protect its own installations, have not offered the same protection for Syrian or Iranian establishments. But Russia’s mediating position may be eroding.

Israel did not give the Russians notice of its airstrikes in early April. While Moscow grumbled, it stopped short of retaliating. But after those strikes, as well as the American-British-French ones on April 14, Russia indicated that it may finally equip Assad’s military with S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems. If Israel comes into contact with those systems, whether by seeking to destroy them or simply by carrying out air strikes in their vicinity, it could push its “deconfliction” relationship with Russia to breaking point.

Other scenarios could yet play out on the southern front. Iran could respond to Israeli airstrikes by hitting targets within Israel; Russia could withdraw its guarantees that neither Iran nor its proxies will have a lasting presence in a post-rebel south. And even if Russia tries to hold that line, its leverage with Iran may have already weakened to the point where Tehran acts without seeking Moscow’s acceptance. The choices on all sides are limited, and unless one party backs down in this standoff, a mutually destructive engagement between Iran and Israel is looming on the horizon.

On April 30, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, told Iranian workers in Tehran: “Some countries in the region should know that if they face the Islamic Republic of Iran, they will definitely be hit and defeated.” The ayatollah is well-known for his bluster. So is Benjamin Netanyahu. But in Syria’s kaleidoscopic conflict, their once-empty threats may be aligning to create a war within a war.

 

Scott Lucas, Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham and Umer Karim, PhD Candidate, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

For What's New on Facts & Arts please follow: @olliraade on Twitter.

Olli Raade, Editor to Facts & Arts.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Added 23.05.2018
The good news is that the United States and China appear to have backed away from the precipice of a trade war. While vague in detail, a May 19 agreement defuses tension and commits to further negotiation. The bad news is that the framework of negotiations is flawed: A deal with any one country will do little to resolve America’s fundamental economic imbalances that have arisen in an interconnected world.
Added 21.05.2018
The cryptocurrency revolution, which started with bitcoin in 2009, claims to be inventing new kinds of money. There are now nearly 2,000 cryptocurrencies, and millions of people worldwide are excited by them. What accounts for this enthusiasm, which so far remains undampened by warnings that the revolution is a sham? One must bear in mind that attempts to reinvent money have a long history. As the sociologist Viviana Zelizer points out in her book The Social Meaning of Money: “Despite the commonsense idea that ‘a dollar is a dollar is a dollar,’ everywhere we look people are constantly creating different kinds of money.” Many of these innovations generate real excitement, at least for a while. As the medium of exchange throughout the world, money, in its various embodiments, is rich in mystique. We tend to measure people’s value by it. It sums things up like nothing else. And yet it may consist of nothing more than pieces of paper that just go round and round in circles of spending. So its value depends on belief and trust in those pieces of paper. One might call it faith.
Added 19.05.2018
The protests that rippled across Russia ahead of Vladimir Putin’s fourth inauguration as president followed a familiar script. Police declared the gatherings illegal, and the media downplayed their size. Alexey Navalny, the main organizer and Russia’s de facto opposition leader, was arrested in dramatic fashion, dragged out of a rally in Moscow by police. On May 15, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison. More than 1,600 protesters across the country were beaten and detained.
Added 16.05.2018
Many knowledgeable people dismiss the prospect of advanced AGI [=Artificial General Intelligence]. Some, ..........,argue that it is impossible for AI to outsmart humanity........Yet other distinguished scholars........do worry that AGI could pose a serious or even existential threat to humanity. With experts lining up on both sides of the debate, the rest of us should keep an open mind.
Added 15.05.2018
The world’s most important bilateral relationship – between the United States and China – is also one of its most inscrutable. Bedeviled by paradoxes, misperceptions, and mistrust, it is a relationship that has become a source of considerable uncertainty and, potentially, severe instability. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the brewing bilateral trade war.
Added 15.05.2018
Viewed from Palestine, it’s hard to disagree that we’ve perhaps seen one of the most inflammatory weeks in recent memory. In just a few days, several extremely sensitive events have coincided to devastating effect: the culmination of weekly protests in the Gaza Strip, the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Nakba (from the Arabic, “Immense Catastrophe”) and the start of the holy month of Ramadan. Throw in for good measure Israel and Iran’s recent clash over the occupied Golan Heights and it seems that more than ever, the region is something of a tinderbox.
Added 14.05.2018
The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the type of “grand bargain” Iran proposed to the Bush administration in May 2003. Bush rejected the offer, vowing never to talk with a member of the “axis of evil.” As Vice President Dick Cheney put it in reference to North Korea – another member of that fanciful “axis” – Americans “don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” But by trading diplomacy for saber-rattling, the Bush administration slammed the door on a solution with Iran. Today, as Trump embraces the same tactics, it’s hard to fathom how the outcome will be any different.
Added 12.05.2018
Quote: "If you take out a piece of paper and put 10 political issues that are important to you on one side and the words “Republican” or “Democrat” on the top, then categorize them, most of you are likely to find that you, too, are a hybrid of both. If my contention is correct, and enough voters get fed up enough with the political status quo in the mid-terms and the next presidential election to say that neither Party actually represents their belief system, we may just find that the 40% of American voters who are already Independent turns into 50% or 60% in the near term. I am willing to bet that in spite of all the hype about most Americans being firmly in one political camp or the other, that most Americans are actually middle ground voters who form part of the emerging hybrid political class. Whether they choose to remain affiliated with either the Democrat or Republican Parties in the future remains to be seen. Stay tuned".
Added 10.05.2018
Quote: "China, clearly, is emerging as a world power, even more quickly than it otherwise would, to the extent that the US is coming to be seen as an unreliable partner concerned only with advancing its own interests – at the expense, if necessary, of other countries. But the belief that China will continue growing at mid-single-digit rates for an extended period violates the first rule of forecasting: don’t extrapolate the present into the future. At some point, China will hit bumps in the road, and there is no guarantee that its leaders will admit their failures and adjust policy accordingly."
Added 08.05.2018
The decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by Trump is most unfortunate. It seems that Trump was not swayed by either France’s President Macron or Germany’s Chancellor Merkel to preserve the deal. Instead, he appears to have taken Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s advice to decertify the deal, even though Iran continues to fully adhere to all of its provisions. It is dangerous that neither Trump nor Netanyahu appears to fully grasp the dire regional and international implications of the unilateral decertification of the deal by the US.
Added 04.05.2018
Quote fromthe article: "Iran has been instrumental in the survival of the Assad regime since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. Since then, Israel has used its air power to disrupt weapons supplies to Hezbollah and maintain a buffer zone in the southwest, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. But now it seems things are heating up. Is this now a far bigger, more direct confrontation in the Syrian arena?"
Added 03.05.2018
As signs of an incipient slowdown in the European economy begin to multiply – coincident indicators suggest that industrial production has slowed sharply in 2018 – the case for agreeing on a Brexit deal and refocusing attention on capital markets union is becoming more powerful and more urgent. The commissioner now responsible, Valdis Dombrovskis, said in London in late April that the “building blocks” will be in place early next year, to “help our companies to better cope with the departure of Europe’s largest financial center from the single market.” That is a laudable goal, but it could well be too little, too late.
Added 03.05.2018
Gaza has often been invaded for its water. Every army leaving or entering the Sinai desert, whether Babylonians, Alexander the Great, the Ottomans, or the British, has sought relief there. But today the water of Gaza highlights a toxic situation that is spiralling out of control. A combination of repeated Israeli attacks and the sealing of its borders by Israel and Egypt, have left the territory unable to process its water or waste. Every drop of water swallowed in Gaza, like every toilet flushed or antibiotic imbibed, returns to the environment in a degraded state.
Added 24.04.2018
Renewable electricity costs have fallen faster than all but the most extreme optimists believed possible only a few years ago. In favorable sunny locations, such as northern Chile, electricity auctions are being won by solar power at prices that have plummeted 90% in ten years. Even in less sunny Germany, reductions of 80% have been achieved. Wind costs have fallen some 70%, and battery costs around 80%, since 2010.........[The] estimate that the cost of going green will be very small has proved too pessimistic – the cost will actually be negative.
Added 23.04.2018
Electric Vessels, EVs don’t rise or fall on Tesla — Nissan and the Chinese brands are arguably way ahead, and the Chevy Bolt is comparable to the Tesla 3. But it is unarguable that a price spike in petroleum would certainly help the company get past its current Tesla 3 production problems by substantially bolstering investor and consumer confidence.
Added 20.04.2018
 

As the US, Russia and China test each other’s patience and strategic focus, speculation about the chances of a world war has hit a new high.

Added 18.04.2018

HONG KONG – At the beginning of this century, when China launched its “going out” policy – focused on using foreign-exchange reserves to support overseas expansion and acquisitions by Chinese companies – few expected the country quickly to emerge as a leading economic player in Latin America.

Added 18.04.2018

BEIJING – Last month, US President Donald Trump enacted steel and aluminum tariffs aimed squarely at China. On April 2, China retaliated with tariffs on 128 American products. Trump then announced 25% tariffs on another 1,300 Chinese products, representing some $50 billion of exports.

Added 17.04.2018

WASHINGTON, DC – Last week was a most unusual one for President Donald Trump’s administration.

Added 16.04.2018

All the attention being given to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica regarding their breach of public trust and exploitation of personal data is richly deserved.