The growing list of mutually hostile actors in Syria may sleepwalk into a conflict they didn’t want.
An intensifying succession of Israeli strikes targeting Iranian positions within Syria, coupled with US reentry into the conflict in the wake of President Assad’s reported use of chemical weapons, has prompted fears of escalation in the increasingly complex civil war.
– While escalation in Syria could result in full-blown conflict, the costs of any potential confrontation and the internal preoccupation of most of the involved parties mean that the most likely outcome is that war will be avoided for the immediate future.
– In the short-term, expect to see Israel continue its policy of conducting surgical strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets within Syria.
– If Iran and Hezbollah carve out a permanent post-conflict presence, the two allies will have to play a careful game or risk provoking an Israeli incursion into Syria.
IRANIAN AMBITION, ISRAEL FEAR AND THE RUSSIAN FACTOR
On May 10, Israel conducted its largest airstrike in Syria to date, after Iranian forces in Syria fired a barrage of missiles at Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights. The exchange marked a significant escalation in a slow-moving conflict pitching Hezbollah, Iran and to a lesser extent Syria against Israel. Such tactical decision risk widening the pool of involved parties: although Tel Aviv and Russia have a deconfliction agreement aimed at avoiding any accidental clashes in Syria, the arrangement could become less sustainable as tensions rise between Moscow and Israel’s key ally, the US.
Throughout the course of Syria’s civil war, Israel has allegedly launched over one hundred strikes on pro-Iranian sites, often targeting weapons convoys and caches. Israel fears that Hezbollah — which it fought a brief but bloody war against in 2006 — and Iran will establish a permanent presence in Syria and use it as a base to launch attacks on Israel with an increasingly sophisticated arsenal. Israel’s fears are exacerbated by the significant combat experience that Hezbollah has gained in Syria as it fights to save the Assad regime.
Although Iran’s warmongering intent may be exaggerated by Tel Aviv, it appears certain that Tehran desires a long-term military presence in Syria. Iran seemingly wants to solidify its growing regional influence by building a ‘land bridge’ from Tehran to Beirut. This bridge, often referred to as the ‘Shia crescent’, would give Tehran access to the Mediterranean as well as making it far easier to supply allied forces like the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. If Iran — or more likely Hezbollah — wanted to attack Israel, the supply lines provided by this land bridge would be of vital importance. An expanded Iranian presence would also limit Israel’s room for strategic manoeuvre in its near abroad.
In the context of these ambitions, Israel has been increasingly alarmed as Iran and Hezbollah beef up their military presence in Syria as part of their effort to save the Assad regime. Hezbollah reportedly has thousands of men in or around the Syrian sector of the disputed Golan Heights, while Iranian militias make up a key component of Assad’s ground capabilities. In this environment, the feared Shia crescent is increasingly becoming a reality as Iran has moved to transfer weapons to Hezbollah and is allegedly constructing military bases within Syria. Despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s consistent overtures to Moscow, Russia has been unwilling or unable to curtail these developments. Nevertheless, as Israel gradually acts unilaterally to counter Iranian efforts to supply Hezbollah and build military infrastructure, tensions have begun to rise, culminating in more clashes between the parties.
THE SYRIAN WAR TO COME?
Despite rising tensions, Israel is unlikely to find itself embroiled in any kind of confrontation with Russia. For one thing, Trump has signalled his reluctance to become further involved in the conflict, making any kind of Russia-US clash unlikely. In other words, the recent strikes against alleged chemical weapon sites in Syria do not portend greater US involvement. Even if this were to occur, neither Israel nor Russia have an interest in fighting each other, especially because Tel Aviv’s interests are more about containing Iran than undermining the Assad regime.
A confrontation with Iran seems more likely than one with Russia. Yet, despite Israel’s strategic anxiety, a full-scale war with Iran also seems unlikely to develop in the foreseeable future. This does not mean that war is impossible; massive Israeli military exercises held in September last year demonstrated that Israel’s military establishment is taking the threat of Hezbollah and Iran seriously — even if these drills may be more about deterrence than anything else.
Embroiled in a corruption scandal which could see him formally charged, it is not inconceivable that Netanyahu would launch a war to distract from the allegations, especially if he decides to call an early election. Netanyahu is in a greater position than ever to make this decision; on April 30, the Israeli parliament voted to authorise the prime minister the power to declare war, solely with the approval of the defence minister. But should Netanyahu use such a ploy, it would only serve as a short-term delaying measure to offset his domestic problems.
Furthermore, a war with Hezbollah and Iran in Syria would be extremely costly and will test Israel’s relationships. US support is not guaranteed given the White House’s preoccupation with other issues, both domestic and foreign. Despite President Trump’s anti-Iran stance, a policy of militarily confronting Iran has so far not been on the agenda. Moreover, war could complicate Israel’s growing alignment with Saudi Arabia, allied Gulf states and Egypt. Even though these nations oppose Iran, increasing cooperation with Tel Aviv would be a tough sell publicly if Israel was occupying Arab land or bombing Arab cities.
Despite their own anti-Zionist rhetoric, neither Hezbollah or Iran has much to gain from a war with Israel. Although Hezbollah could use the war to rebuild its shattered imagine in the Arab world, its significant combat losses in Syria lessen the attractiveness of this option. While rocket attacks are possible, Hezbollah will probably refrain from undertaking activities which could escalate into a war — its focus will be on securing its position in Lebanon after the indecisive May 6 general election.
Iran is not raring for a confrontation either. One of the major sparks for protests that engulfed Iran in January was the perception that the clerical and military elite care more about esoteric foreign policy goals than the dire economic reality facing the average citizen. Despite no longer being constrained by the possibility that Washington could scrap the landmark 2015 nuclear deal by attacking Israel, these domestic pressures make it difficult to envisage Iran diving into yet another foreign military engagement.
Although war is unlikely, expect Israel’s policy of surgical strikes to continue as it does all it can to stop Iran from supplying of Hezbollah and building permanent military bases. At the same time, expect Israel to try and persuade Moscow and Washington to do more to contain Tehran. Yet this strategy may ultimately prove to be futile, especially as the civil war increasing turns in Assad’s favour and Moscow looks to dig itself out of the quagmire. Moreover, airstrikes alone are notoriously ineffective at dislodging forces embedded on the ground and this strategy may become even more ineffective if Iran moves to tighten Syria’s anti-aircraft defences to ward off more US and Israeli strikes.
The long-term prospect of war cannot be discounted. Given Israel’s clear military superiority and the internal preoccupations of each actor, expect Hezbollah and Iran to continue to respond relatively mutedly to Israeli strikes. However, if there is one constant in international relations it is that political and strategic rationales change. If tensions continue to rise, a protracted cold war may not be sustainable. Watch this space.