This article originally appeared in The Times of Israel on January 27, 2019.
In recent weeks, Iran was accelerating again its efforts to use Syrian soil to build up its capability to hit targets in Israel, both by its own forces or through supporting its surrogates – Hezbollah and other militias – in Syria and Lebanon. This came after a period of relative restrain from Tehran following the shooting down by a Syrian air defense system of the Russian IL-15 in September 2018 and accelerated after the Americans announced they are going to leave Syria soon. The Iranian attempts were followed very closely by Israel, which responded by resuming its attacks against Iranian military targets in Syria. This time Israel gave up its policy of ambiguity that enabled some limited deniability. Iran tried again, as it had already done twice in the last year (in February and May 2018), to hit unknown targets in Israel and deter it from carrying the attacks in Syria, but its effort was foiled by Israel and led Israel to retaliate forcefully hitting more lucrative Iranian targets in Syria.
What should we learn from these repeated events?
- Iran remains committed to building a military base in Syria from where it can threaten Israel. The purpose of this base is critical for Tehran not just because the Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel but because it is afraid that the growing American pressures may bring escalation between Iran and the US and they would like to have the option of hitting an American strategic ally as a deterrence vis-a-vis Washington. The upcoming anti-Iran conference in Poland, the European sanctions and the prevention of Mahar Air from landing in Germany signify in Iranian eyes the growing threat and the need to be well prepared to face it. Therefore, Iran is not going to give up easily and Israel will have to go on with its “battle in between wars” policy to deny Iran its goal.
- Israel can still rely on its Intelligence dominance and superiority and its military advantage to make it very costly and difficult for Iran to make progress on its plan. This Intelligence dominance was manifested recently in so many events that caused Iran a heavy damage, and also frustrated and embarrassed it, such as the smuggling of the nuclear archive from Tehran and the exposure of Hezbollah tunnels, and this frustration was most probably one of the reasons why Iran felt obliged to take military action against Israel.
- The nature of the Iranian response and the way it was thwarted for the third time reflects the Iranian coming to terms with its limitations and relative weaknesses but does not mean Iran is not going to try again. On the contrary, the Israeli new attitude of proudly assuming responsibility to the attacks may just increase Iran’s inclination to seek revenge and deterrence.
- Russia has a role to play and it can advise the Iranians to stop the military buildup in Syria beyond what is necessary to keep Assad in power. They were probably behind the slowdown of the Iranian efforts after the shooting down of the Russian plane and they were responsible to the understanding with Iran that it will not deploy its forces in the area close to Israel border. This understanding was ignored by Iran and the missile it launched towards Israel came from the area that was covered by this understanding. The mixed Russian reaction to the last attacks indicates that Russia would like to avoid escalation and at the same time to avoid confrontation with both Iran and Israel. Israel and the US (that was a party to this understanding) should demand that Russia makes sure that Iran sticks by its commitment.
- In the eyes of the pragmatic Arab states Israel’s stature as the only country that is ready to stand against Iran militarily keeps growing and should be translated into closer relations with Israel. Israel also proves in American eyes again as a model (for Arab states and Europe) of a regional force that is ready and capable to defend itself by itself based on American support. This is what President Trump expects from American allies.
- At the same time the recent exchange is another warning about the potential consequences of an American withdrawal from Syria and especially from the strategically important area of Tanf. This may lure Iran to try and use the ground road to deliver advanced weapons to Syria and bring about escalation. The United States may rethink this move.