A clash between Israel and Iran is the latest addition to the list of wars raging within Syria. Though neither the Jewish state nor the Islamic republic has an interest in a major confrontation, their differing interests steer them toward an inevitable conflict. A large-scale Israeli military intervention in Syria could torpedo U.S. efforts to ensure that neither Iran nor jihadists threaten regional stability. Therefore, Washington will have to engage in some complex diplomacy to sustain its strategy as the situation in the Levant grows more precarious.
Escalation in the Air
Israel’s military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, told CNN on Feb. 12 that the design of the Iranian drone that an Israeli Apache gunship helicopter shot down in the early hours of Feb. 11 was based on the U.S. unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) RQ-170 Sentinel. Iranian forces reportedly intercepted an RQ-170 in Dec. 2011 while it was on a reconnaissance mission over northeastern Iran, and in 2014 the Iranians claimed to have replicated the drone via reverse engineering. In response to the incursion by the Iranian drone, Israel conducted airstrikes at a dozen sites in Syria including the Tiyas (T-4) airbase at Palmyra where the Iranian drone’s command control vehicle was based. During the bombing raids, one Israeli F-16 was shot down by a Syrian S-200 anti-aircraft missile – the first such incident since 1982. Israel has conducted periodic airstrikes in Syria for a few years now in an effort to interdict the shipment of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, but this incident represents a major escalation.
In addition to these air raids, Israel is negotiating with Russia to keep Iranian forces supporting the Assad regime from operating near the Syrian-Israeli border. Initially, the Israelis had sought a buffer zone of 37 miles; however, because Iranian forces have a presence at a Syrian military facility in the town of al-Kiswah – 31 miles from the border – the Israelis and Russians reached an understanding to maintain a 25-mile demilitarized zone. The Israelis warned that Iranian entry into this area would trigger a military response.
Israel has been in extensive communication with Russia in order to secure Russian cooperation in preventing Iran from consolidating its presence in Syria. In late January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on this very issue. A day after the meeting, a high-level Russian delegation composed of deputy ministers, senior military commanders, and intelligence officials, led by national security chief Nikolai Patrushev, arrived in Jerusalem for follow-up talks on Syria and the broader region. Even during this latest clash, it was a phone call between from Putin to Netanyahu that reportedly prevented further escalation.
Russia’s Interests and Iran’s Role
The Russians also do not want to see the Iranians dominate Syria, but they have a different calculus from of Iran’s. Russia needs Iran, and Tehran’s resources and influence, to ensure the stability of the Assad regime. Moscow’s direct military involvement in Syria is largely limited to airpower. However, on the ground, Iran is taking the lead in mobilizing the pro-regime forces and coordinating steady communications between them and the militias. These include Syrian regular forces, pro-Assad militia groups and, more importantly, a large contingent of Shiite foreign fighters from numerous Arab and Muslim countries mobilized by Iran’s elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Iran’s premier regional proxy, Hezbollah, has thousands of its experienced militiamen in this mix. Finally, the IRGC has deployed some of its own personnel in terms of advisers and troops from its overseas operations arm called the Quds Force.
Iran, inevitably, created a “dependency policy” with Syria and Russia that gives Tehran considerable operational and strategic latitude in Syria. There is a limit to how much the Russians can influence Iranian military movements in country. But the situation in Syria is not just about Russian capability; it also has to do with Moscow’s strategic plans for the region. From Russia’s perspective, Syria is more than an area of influence; it is also a tool the Kremlin has been using to try to reshape American behavior.
Russia is willing to cooperate with the United States on Syria, but only in exchange for concessions on issues that matter more to Moscow than the Middle East – specifically, Ukraine and the sanctions placed on the Kremlin. Russia knows the benefit of creating problems for the United States while using Iranian military forces on the ground, and Syria is a battlespace where Moscow can do that quite effectively. Here is where an Israeli-Iranian confrontation works to the advantage of the Russians as it simultaneously complicates matters for the Americans and keeps Iranian ambitions in check.
An Untenable Situation
Thus, while Israel will continue to extract whatever cooperation it can get from Russia, it is well aware of the limits of such assistance. Similarly, the Israelis realize that an alignment with the Arab states can only help so much. In fact, the Arab states are expecting Israel to do most of the work to contain Iran’s expanding regional footprint. The only other player the Israelis could work with is Turkey, but relations between the two sides are not what they used to be, and the Turks are struggling on their border with Syria and are not interested in confronting Iran.
The Israelis realize that in the end they will have to rely on themselves to manage the Iranian threat on their northern doorstep; the escalation stems from this need to be self-reliant. That said, Israel has no interest in a major military intervention in Syria, and Iran knows a large-scale Israeli offensive in Syria could give the rebels and their regional allies (especially Turkey) the chance to stage a comeback. Regardless, Iran will cautiously push its boundaries in Syria, running the risk of an Israeli response that could spiral out of control. Likewise, Israel can be expected to continue taking pre-emptive action against Iran; but this is an untenable situation that could lead to a dangerous military escalation. A large-scale Israeli military effort in southern Syria could, in turn, expand into Lebanon and exponentially destabilize regional security.
The United States is still making sure that the significant gains against Daesh are not reversed. At the same time, Washington cannot allow Iran to benefit from the degradation of the jihadists. The Trump administration will be calibrating this situation for a long time and, therefore, needs to rise from a tactical level engagement in Syria to a strategic one. Washington must not let Moscow take the lead in managing the Syrian conflict. The Trump administration will have to engage in complex negotiations with the major stakeholders in the Syrian battlespace, including Russia, Turkey, Israel and Iran in order to reclaim the initiative.
Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy and Programs at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a senior analyst with the intelligence firm Geopolitical Futures, and a Fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
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