Iran and Israel Face-off in Syria: Is Direct Confrontation Looming?

With stabilizing Assad’s position and his reasserting control over most of the country, the civil war in Syria enters a new phase of conflict between state actors.

With stabilizing Assad’s position and his reasserting control over most of the country, the civil war in Syria enters a new phase of conflict between state actors. The recent development in relations between Iran and Israel is a case in point. Tension between the two rivals is growing, and as observers noted, there is a high possibility of escalation into a direct and full-fledged conflict between the two arch-enemies on Syrian soil.

The incidents of February 10, 2018, underline the rising tensions. The Israel Defense Force (IDF) shot down an Iranian drone that crossed into Israel’s airspace and bombed the command-and-control vehicle containing the crew that operated the drone in Syria. During the exchanges, the Syrian air defense downed an Israeli F-16 fighter jet, the first Israeli aircraft to be shot down by enemy firepower since 1982. Israel responded with massive retaliation against Iranian military targets in Syria.

Political commentators assume that the fire exchanges between Iran and Israel were a shift in Iran’s strategic approach from covert and proxy intervention to a direct pursuit of the anti-Israeli “resistance axis.” They noted that that particular incident and the shifting of the balance of power in Syria is an indicator of a looming showdown. Others argued that the incident may give the Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who because the personal trials and tribulations he faces aims to change the agenda of Israeli media – a pretext to initiate a war against Iran.

However, there are many indications that discredit these assumptions. For instance, Israel’s urging Russia to intervene in Syria to help de-escalate the current flare in growing tensions with Iran, and Tel Aviv’s contacting the White House about the incident signal that a direct war with Iran is not welcomed by Israeli officials. The latter case of Netanyahu’s using the incident as a pretext is also highly unlikely because, as one intelligence analyst put it, “Israel is not a banana republic and [Netanyahu] cannot order a full-fledged confrontation just because he is in the dog house.”

Similarly, on the Iranian side, there are many indications that no one in the leadership is willing to pay a heavy price for getting Iran into a direct conflict with Israel. The Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told BBC News that Iran's presence in Syria does not aimed at creating a new front against Israel, but to fight terrorism. Araqchi’s statement is sensible as Iran hasn’t yet responded to the December 1, 2017, Israeli bombing of weapons convoys and a military site in Syria that reportedly housed Iranian forces, resulting in killing 12 Iranian soldiers and wounding many more.

In November 2017, a Western intelligence source reported that Iran is constructing a permanent military base in the south of Damascus, close to the Israeli border. The December 1 event sent a clear message to Tehran that Israel will not tolerate the permanent presence of Iran’s military buildup in Syria. This redline was also set by Netanyahu in a video message following the attack: “We will not allow [Iran] to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”

The price will probably be high if Iranians were to ignore the Israeli redlines. Though it is an easier-said-than-done option for the Israeli politicians, a direct clash with Israel may give Tel Aviv an opportunity to opt for a kinetic option against Iran’s nuclear infrastructures. This likely option was clearly outlined in Netanyahu’s speech on Iran in Munich; “Israel will not allow Iran's regime to put a noose of terror around [its] neck. [Israel] will act without hesitation to defend [itself]…not just against Iran's proxies…but against Iran itself.”

Additionally, Iran’s objective in Syria is to stabilize the Assad regime in order to strengthen its influence in the region. Confrontation with Israel could block Iran’s path to achieve this goal. Still, it remains unclear why the Revolutionary Guards may want to fly a drone over Israel if they are not willing to stir the pot.

Comments in the U.S. media also hint that Washington does not want Israel to enter the already overcrowded Syrian battlefield. During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on February 27, 2018, General Joseph Votel who is in charge of the U.S. Central Command noted that countering Iran is not a mission of the American-led coalition fighting in Syria. Back in mid-January, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also laid out a U.S. strategy in Syria that does not allow for the direct military battle to counter Iran.

At the same time, a war between Iran and Israel is not in the interest of Russia as Moscow tries to sustain a dominant position on the Syrian battleground. Moscow has amicable relations with both sides and its mild reaction to these events reflects its desire to maintain cooperation with both Tehran and Tel Aviv. Any Iranian-Israel military engagement may develop into a situation that could escalate out of Russian control, not a desired outcome for the Russians, as they are seeking to maintain the balance in Syria.

However, Iran’s calmness in response to the Israeli attacks in Syria should not be taken for granted. Iran will probably respond in its own way. On February 14, on the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, a senior member of Hezbollah, Qassem Soleimani, the Quds Force chief, promised to “wipe out the Zionist entityin revenge for shedding Mughniyeh’s blood. Judging Iran’s modus operandi, Iran will most likely initiate a new terror campaign against Israeli citizens abroad, similar to the July 2012 suicide bombing of an Israeli tourist bus in Bulgaria or the terror campaign which was included the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Bangkok.

Finally, although all evidence suggests that initiating a full-scale war is not an attractive option for all sides involved, the increasing explosiveness of the region signals that any tactical event may rapidly turn into an inadvertent conflict.

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