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4
May
2015

Toward a Regional Escalation?


On April 28 the Syrian defense minister, General Fahad Jassim al-Freij, made a surprise visit to Tehran where, with the backdrop of the escalating battles in Syria and the weakening of Bashar Assad’s regime, he met with his Iranian counterpart.

In a joint press conference in Tehran, the two emphasized that “Syria and Iran, and the resistance axis, will not allow the enemies to achieve their goals in the region, and Iran supports Syria unstintingly in its strategic relations with it.”

Iran is very concerned about the situation in Syria. The military assistance it gives the Assad regime for its war against the rebels has turned out to be insufficient. Nor has Hizbullah’s role in fighting alongside the Syrian army stopped the rebels’ progress toward Damascus and the city of Latakia on the northern Syrian coast.

Map

The rebels have formed a coalition of several organizations, including the Islamic State under the name Jish Fatah, which has scored successes on the battlefield. They have conquered the Idlib province and effectively cut off the capital, Damascus, from the city of Aleppo. They have also taken control of the town of Jisr alShughur on the Idlib-Latakia route, and on April 20, 2014 fierce battles were waged in the Latakia area, which is considered one of the strongholds of the Alawite regime.

And in the southern Daraa region, rebels managed to seize the Nasib border crossing, which has served as a free trade area between Jordan and Syria.

If the rebels’ advance toward Damascus from the east and north continues, Iran will not be able to stand aside; it will have to intervene even more significantly in the battles. It is in this context that one should see the Syrian defense minister’s visit to Tehran. Iran is determined to do all it can to save Bashar Assad’s regime.

According to various sources, Qatar has been able to persuade the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdulaziz, to halt his alliance with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates against the Muslim Brotherhood and, instead, forge a new triangle with Turkey and Qatar that will strongly support the Islamist rebels’ coalition against the Assad regime.

Escalation in Yemen

In Yemen, despite Saudi Arabia’s announcement on April 21, 2015 that it was stopping the aerial bombing, the battles continue.

Iran has no intention of giving in, and the Houthi rebels exploited the halt in the bombing to try and make military gains. Over the weekend there were also clashes along Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia announced that the Houthi rebels had attacked across the Yemeni border and that the Saudi army had killed dozens of their fighters.

The Strengthening of Iran’s Naval and Aerial Activity

The tension with Iran exists in both the naval and aerial domains.

After Saudi Arabia announced it was stopping the aerial bombings in Yemen, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared a new Iranian naval strategy called the “broader Persian Gulf strategy.”

On May 1, the official Iranian news agency IRNA, citing Iranian naval commander General Habib Allah Siyari, reported the Iranian navy plans to dispatch its fleet’s ships on July 11 to the area of the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The Strait of Hormuz. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)

The Strait of Hormuz. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)

In the aftermath of the incident on April 28 in which five Iranian warships intercepted the Marshall Islands-flagged container ship Maersk Tigris and forced it to sail to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, American destroyers have moved into position to protect American-flagged container ships crossing through the Strait of Hormuz. Although Iran claims that the April 28 incident stemmed from a commercial conflict over a financial debt, the Pentagon has issued a statement calling the incident a “provocation.”

It appears that Iran took this step in response to USS Sterett destroyer searching a Panamanian-flagged ship Saisaban on April 1 in waters near Yemen, suspecting it was carrying Iranian weapons for the rebels in Yemen.

To this one should add an aerial incident that occurred in Yemen on April 28, 2014 after an Iranian “relief” plane entered Yemeni airspace and tried to land at Sana’a’s airport, on the claim that it was Yemeni rather than Saudi airspace. To prevent the plane from landing, Saudi air force pilots bombed the runway at the Sana’a airport.

Where Is All this Leading?

Iran will not allow itself to lose the strategic strongholds it has gained in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, nor its de facto control over four Arab capitals (Baghdad, Damascus, Sana’a, and Beirut).

It appears, then, that on those fronts where its allies are losing strength, Iran will have to ramp up its direct military involvement so as to safeguard its gains.

About Yoni Ben Menachem

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
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