By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
Iran has used the Syrian civil war to expand its footprint throughout the Levant, while Israel pushes back. On January 20 and 21, Israel and Iran launched attacks against each other. Israel struck Iranian targets in Syria near the Damascus airport, while Iran launched a medium-range missile into the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
According to Jerusalem, Iranian forces were not supposed to be in the area per ongoing discussions with Russia. Moscow asked Israel to halt its air strikes in Syria, but the threat from the Iranian presence so close to the Israeli border was too much of a security risk. Either Russia doesn’t have the ability to compel Iran to leave the airport, or the Russians are simply ignoring the matter since Israel has not stopped its strikes.
This is only one complication among the various powers vying for influence, if not outright control, of a post-civil war Syria. However, this standoff between Israel and Iran has the potential to escalate into a much more active conflict.
Iran’s Perspective Is Based on History
Historically, Iran has attempted to move beyond its mountainous borders into Mesopotamia and the greater Levant to the Mediterranean. Much of this movement was predicated on preventing a hostile power from occupying Iraq and keeping ancient Persia (modern Iran) hemmed in.
By moving westward, Persia could participate in the robust Mediterranean trade and also control all east-west commerce. It was a powerful pull, but fraught with risk that eventually brought Persia into conflict with distant Greece.
The same desire to prevent hostile powers from occupying Iraq persists today. The Iran-Iraq war was a disaster for both belligerents. In addition, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002 placed a very powerful adversary capable of meddling in Iran’s internal affairs right on Tehran’s doorstep.
Iran worked diligently to stymie the U.S. occupation, which ultimately led to a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and a very generous nuclear deal with Iran that removed most roadblocks to Iranian expansion in the region. That didn’t make Iran immune to potential problems, however.
As in the past, the Iranian experience mimicked how Persia left Iranian forces and political influence vulnerable to outside forces, including Sunni Muslims, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. As a result, Tehran’s expansionist agenda was undermined.
What was worse for Iran was the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal forged by the Obama administration. Iran’s economy took a significant hit when the U.S. pulled out of the multination accord and reimposed sanctions.
In addition, reports that U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton was inquiring about military options to deal with Tehran made foreign investors think twice before engaging with Iran. Tehran certainly didn’t do itself any favors by returning to the assassination game and targeting dissidents in Europe. EU members were actively looking for ways around U.S. sanctions, but they have since toed Washington’s line about dealing with Tehran.
Iran now has to determine the best way forward and how it can maintain its regional gains without sacrificing stability at home.
Israel’s Perspective Dates to Its Founding
Israel’s 1948 War of Independence saw the new nation face off against multiple Arab adversaries in a conflict in which Israel prevailed against overwhelming odds, but at the loss of one percent of its Jewish population. That loss was doubly significant, coming on the heels of the Holocaust.
Although Israel has fought several wars with its neighbors in the ensuing years, it has never been able to fully eliminate threats from its adversaries. Jerusalem does have the 1978 Camp David Accords, brokered by President Jimmy Carter with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. This agreement serves as a hedge against an Egyptian invasion and there are other peace agreements as well.
But Israel has not yet resolved the Palestinian issue, nor has it eliminated the threat posed by Hezbollah to the north. With that in mind, Tel Aviv does not want to see another threat on its northern border. This is why Israel has spent significant political capital in discussions with Russia over the Iranian presence in Syria.
During the Syrian civil war, Israel initially took a wait-and-see approach since the conflict with the Assad regime was kept at a low level even at the worst of times. As Assad gained military backing from Russia and Iran, however, Israel became far more active in targeting munitions and training facilities in Syria used by Iran and Hezbollah. For a time, Israel didn’t always acknowledge that it was taking military action in Syria, even though it was an open secret.
That reticence has changed with these most recent strikes. Israel spoke openly about its air strikes, probably as a message to regional and global powers that the situation Israel faces is unacceptable. Without any global assistance in countering Iranian activities in Syria, Israel will take unilateral action.
It’s clear that Israel believes the window to prevent an entrenched Iran in Syria is closing and the necessary action to counter that entrenchment must be taken sooner rather than later.
A New Conflict May Involve Israel, Iran and Hezbollah
Without some form of outside pressure on Syria, Iran, Russia and Israel — diplomatic or otherwise — to deescalate the current situation, we could see another conflict similar to the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. However, a next conflict would involve a far more active Iran.
Iran cannot walk away from Syria and surrender its hard-won gains in the face of economic decline, while Israel simply cannot have an Iranian military presence directly on its borders. The belligerents in this contest have entered a phase when backing down is not only unthinkable, but fraught with disastrous consequences. A conflict doesn’t appear in the offing just yet, but it is getting closer.
Although the U.S. hasn’t left Syria yet, it will eventually do so. That leaves Russia, Turkey and some European forces in the country. Russia may be able to exert some influence on Iran and Israel and help to calm the situation, but Moscow will be limited in what it can do.
Thus far, Russia has not been able to follow through on its guarantees, so it would seem premature to rely on Moscow. The U.S. has more tools to influence some of the players, but the Trump administration has numerous other issues requiring its attention.
In other words, national leaders with the right power and influence either seem unable or unwilling to do much to head off this approaching conflict. That is where the danger really begins.