Israel-Syria-Iran Conflict Would Severely Strain Iran Nuclear Agreement
Israel’s overt entrance into the Syrian civil war is increasingly becoming a very real risk despite the Israeli government’s stated desire to remain neutral beyond conducting periodic airstrikes targeting Syrian and Iranian heavy weapons shipments to Hezbollah. This activity is aggravating the Syrian and Iranian regimes and could lead one of these parties to miscalculate or deliberately escalate the conflict. This would drive up regional risk factors and potentially disrupt oil exports in both Iran and Iraq.
Among the potential consequences of an Israel-Syria-Iran conflict could be a breakdown of the Iran nuclear agreement under the weight of increased unilateral U.S. sanctions. This may already be underway as the U.S. Senate considers legislation that would designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Iran’s primary expeditionary force active throughout the region–as a terrorist entity and impose sanctions on it.
The legislation–stalled for the moment–would also sanction Iran for its ballistic missile developments. The U.S. and other U.N. Security Council permanent member states including the U.K. and France consider these inherently capable of delivering nuclear warheads, if Iran were to acquire the latter. The bill has bipartisan support from the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Iran’s oil exports, reportedly peaking at three million barrels per day in February 2017, according to Iran’s official news agency IRNA, could be sharply curtailed as a result of reinvigorated U.S. efforts to pursue regime change in Iran in response to its full-fledged engagement in a conflict with Israel in southern Syria and Lebanon.
Iraq, moreover, would likely become a renewed battleground between American forces and Iranian proxies, with probable consequences for Iraq’s oil exports, which the country’s oil ministry counted at 3.87 million barrels per day in February 2017.
Increasing Friction Between Israel and Syria
On March 17, Israeli Air Force planes bombed what was most likely a Hezbollah target or heavy weapons cache intended for the Iranian proxy group in the vicinity of Palmyra, located in the heart of Syrian territory. Syrian air defense forces responded by launching surface-to-air missiles at the aircraft as they were returning to Israeli airspace. Israel deployed its Arrow missile defense system and intercepted one missile. Syrian media reported a successful retaliatory strike but Israeli officials denied this.
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman declared two days later that “Israel will not hesitate” to destroy Syria’s air defense system if it fires on Israeli aircraft again.
On 25 March, Lebanese media outlet Al-Diyar claimed that the Syrian government conveyed via Russia that if Israel attacked Syrian military targets, it would respond by firing Scud missiles against Israeli military bases and that if Israel bombed Syrian infrastructure, Syria would target Israel’s port and petrochemical complex in its northwestern coastal city of Haifa. These threats are intended to deter future Israeli strikes but could lead to inadvertent escalation.
It is probable that Assad will calculate that as long as the more radical militant factions–which he initially helped foster and which have been ascendant within the overall Sunni insurgency for the last several years–remain a threat, Israel would not risk going so far as to attempt to topple his government for fear of something even worse taking its place. This could cause him to underestimate the risk of shooting down an Israeli aircraft.
Israeli strikes against Assad’s air defenses, moreover, would provide Iran with a greater pretext for increasing its military involvement in Syria and could also lead to Russian and Israeli military entanglement over Syrian airspace. Broader Israeli military engagement in Syria could potentially also mobilize elements of the Syrian population against Israel, including perhaps shifting the focus of some militant factions from toppling Assad to massing against Israel along the Golan Heights.
Improbable as it seems that this would ultimately benefit Assad’s regime, it is worth noting that the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War in what turned out to be a futile attempt to provoke it to retaliate and shift the coalition of Arab-Muslim states arrayed against him back in his favor.
Hussein also did not believe the U.S. would invade Iraq in 2003 despite months of early warning indicators that it would. He was not irrational–he simply underestimated the Bush administration’s resolve, judging that like President George W. Bush’s father, he would ultimately balk at actually deploying U.S. ground forces to topple him.
Assad is unlikely to calculate that the Arab states would suddenly flip from opposing to supporting him if he initiated a conflict with Israel. He could more conceivably conclude, however, that Iran’s ailing Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is fixated on the annihilation of Israel, would seize the opportunity for one last war with it, however improbable it is that Iran and allied forces could win such a conflict.
The narrative of Iranian propaganda targeting the Arab-Muslim world has accordingly focused on persuading Sunni and Shi’a Muslims alike that their sectarian divisions are a result of American and Israeli conspiracies and that they should unite against these foreign powers. Iranian leaders seem to genuinely believe this narrative.
The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War should have seared in the minds of Iran’s national security establishment the costs of taking on an adversary with powerful outside support. Iran is ascendant throughout the region, however, and this may embolden it to act more aggressively until it miscalculates the severity of response of its enemies.
The most likely scenario is that the Syria, Iran and Hezbollah will continue to absorb Israeli airstrikes and attempt to retaliate in a manner that they calculate will not prematurely escalate into war with Israel. It is worth noting, however, that Hezbollah has underestimated Israel’s response to its provocations before.
Whatever the case, at least as long as Khamenei remains in power in Iran, conflict between Hezollah and Iranian forces against Israel along the Golan Heights and in southern Lebanon is more a question of “when” rather than “if.” The only way this will change is if both Iran and the U.S. muster the political will to seriously reach a compromise on a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is inextricably tied to the Syria conflict.
Unfortunately this will not be forthcoming on the Iranian side due to Khamenei’s fixation on the annihilation of Israel and on the U.S. side due to a lack of countervailing pressure in Congress to challenge Israel’s settlements.