Israel vs Iran, a looming war

A low-key raid in Syria, and Iran's growing influence, sharpen the risk. 

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
26 April 2018

Israeli construction of a wall on the Lebanese border and the growing arsenal of Iran-backed Hezbollah have contributed to the spike in tensions. Metula, Israel in February, 2018. Nir Alon/Press Association. All rights reserved.The joint cruise-missile attack on Syria by forces of the United States, France and the United Kingdom on the night of 13-14 April was a largely symbolic gesture. It warns Bashar al-Assad's regime against further use of chemical weapons, but does little else. Such at least is the conclusion of a new Oxford Research Group analysis of the operation and its context.     

From the perspective of Damascus, the use of chemical weapons has a narrow and localised role as a form of terror to force the evacuation of districts. More widely, the Syrian regime's overwhelming weapons of choice remain air and artillery attacks, which will no doubt be used extensively in forthcoming actions against the holdout rebel-held areas in Idlib province along part of Syria's border with Turkey (see "After the Syria raid: what next?", 17 April 2018)

The regime’s main backers, Russia and Iran, draw from the US-led raid the lesson that they have little to fear of further western interventions and have free rein to continue their support for Assad. In Iran's case, this support has less to do with Syria's leadership itself and much more to do with Israel, where by contrast there is consternation in government circles over the modest nature of the western assault. The ORG briefing says:

“Unless the Assad regime miscalculates in its military operations against the remaining rebel centres in Idlib Province, the most probable consequence of the Western raid on Syria will be increased Israeli involvement in the conflict. Given the rising influence of anti-Iranian hawks within the Trump administration, that escalation will not necessarily be confined to Syria.”

Before the western action, there was welcome if deliberately low-key support in Jerusalem for President Trump’s decision to reshuffle his foreign affairs and security teams. There have been three notable appointments. The hawkish anti-Iran and anti-Russia figure of John Bolton became national-security adviser, replacing the more thoughtful HR McMaster. The religious conservative Mike Pompeo survived a nomination process to exchange his role as director of the CIA for one as secretary of state, after the resignation of Rex Tillerson from that job. Gina Haspel, Pompeo's own proposed replacement, has a dubious record on the “robust interrogation” of Islamist suspects.

The main role of a national-security advisor is to present to the head of state a considered view of security issues and appropriate responses. McMaster, as a retired general, was thought by many observers to be likely to emphasise military options, a view reflected in several of these columns (see for example, "The Trump wars era", 30 November 2017). In practice he was more cautious than was anticipated, whereas Bolton’s long track record is consistent and forceful. It follows that the one-off joint military operation fell short of a frontal challenge to Assad, and as such represents a success for the Pentagon.

The hawks' moment

This in turn constitutes a great concern for Binyamin Netanyahu's government in Israel. Here, the context is that the civil war in Syria has considerably strengthened Hizbollah, allowing it to expand beyond its base in southern Lebanon through Syria itself. The war has also enhanced the influence of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), especially the special-force component known as the Quds force.  

Iran is regarded as the greatest single threat to Israel, whose right wing sees Iran as an existential threat which simply has to be confronted. In its view, that Iran now has strong influence and an increasing military presence so near to Israel's border is simply unacceptable. A further issue is Iran’s sway over the Shi’a government in Baghdad, which reportedly now includes close Iranian input in the redevelopment of Iraq’s own military-industrial complex. Israel sees this as further proof that Iran is spreading its military influence across the region (see "Syria's wars: a new dynamic", 15 February 2018). 

Syria, however, is the more immediate worry. In recent weeks, Israeli Defence Force (IDF) sources have been registering a steady increase in direct Iranian military engagement there. Iran may even be able to link up with militias that control territory uncomfortably close to the Israeli ceasefire lines on the Golan heights (see Nicholas Blanford & Jonathan Spyer, “Bordering on Chaos”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, February 2018). This deepens the existing bond between Iran and Hizbollah, and further allows the transfer of weapons across Syria in transit to southern Lebanon.

The latter trend has frequently been met with IDF airstrikes. Indeed the level of Israeli military operations in Syria is almost entirely unrecognised outside the region. A recent estimate is that, since the civil war began in 2011, Israel has conducted around a hundred strikes across the border.

Two new reports signal the accelerating military pace. In one, the IDF claims that the Iranian military now have a substantial presence at five different air bases scattered across Syria. Moreover, Iran now possesses a drone known as the Simorgh, based on the US's RQ-170 “stealth” reconnaissance drone that crashed in Iran in December 2011 and has since been re-engineered and put into production by Iranian technicians (see "An asymmetrical drone war", 19 August 2010).

Another report, in a US military journal, says that one of these drones, shot down in March when flying over Israel, was actually armed with an explosive charge rather than just functioning as a reconaissance drone. There isn’t yet any independent corroboration of this, but from an IDF perspective it would mean that Iranian government forces – rather than their Hizbollah surrogate in Syria alone – are prepared to attack the state of Israel in its own territory.

A single drone with a small explosive charge overflying Israel can be seen as highly provocative yet to an extent gestural – a response to Israel's own raids into Syria. But Israel's calculation goes much further. IDF sources point to the establishment of Iranian ballistic-missile bases in Syria for the storage of short- and medium-range missiles.

On the political front, Israel’s government is wary of the intensive European efforts to dissuade Trump from his intended repudiation of the Iran nuclear deal by 12 May. The state visit to Washington of Emmanuel Macron, quickly to be followed by Angela Merkel's one-day working trip, is at least partly about saving the agreement. Israel continues to want a much tougher line against Tehran (see Khaled Hroub, "Middle East nightmare, made in Washington", 20 April 2018).

For Israel, the current cycle is thus proving decidedly uncomfortable on several fronts. Tensions with Hizbollah and Iran are rising, while hopes that the White House new arrivals John Bolton and Mike Pompeo would sway Trump further against Iran are in the balance. Trump is notoriously unpredictable. But at least for now, the main consequence of the US-UK-France raid on Syria really is an increased risk of wider war: less “mission accomplished” than yet more blowback. 

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