Israel and Iran square off in Syria

Brian M Downing

Last Saturday, Israel struck targets in Syria after its defenses claimed an Iranian drone had crossed into Israeli airspace. Not much new here. Israeli jets have almost routinely attacked pro-Assad targets over the last few years. This sortie differed in that an Israeli F-16 was brought down, probably by a Syrian surface-to-air missile. This in turn led to more Israeli airstrikes on pro-Assad assets.

A cycle of escalation has begun and may intensify. That depends not only on the two antagonists but also on Syria’s chief backers, Iran and Russia. They have troops in the country and prestige on the line. Their options aren’t good though.

The Israeli position 

Israel has two strategic goals in Syria. First, it wants Syria to remain weak and unable to be the conventional danger it once was, as in 1967 and 1973.  A gravely weakened opponent, fragmented into scores of statelets governed, if barely, by warlords and self-proclaimed emirs, was a strategic boon to Israel.

Over the last year, with the help of Iranian forces and Russia airpower, Assad has retaken large parts of the country, though a full reconquest is unlikely. There are enclaves held by Turkey with its FSA ally in the north, an Arab-Kurdish force in the east, and a no-go zone for Syrian troops near Golan in the south. Further, the economy is in a shambles, oil resources seem to be in Arab-Kurdish hands, Assad will be unable to trust his large Sunni majority. They will be a subjugated populace hostile to their government for decades if not generations. Damascus cannot arm the Sunnis, let alone expect them to fight its wars.

Second, Israel wants to weaken Tehran’s influence in the Levant and encourage turmoil in Iran. Israel has intermittently struck Iranian and Hisbollah targets, claiming that weapons were being transferred to the Lebanese Shia movement, which endangered Israel. Netanyahu has further warned of a growing Iranian military presence in Syria.

By attacking pro-Assad assets, Israel is imposing a cost on Iran. Tehran must foot the bills from building and rebuilding military sites and helping hold up the Damascus government. Further, Iranian casualties have been surprisingly high considering the limited troop levels. Israel is well aware that the recent angry demonstrations in Iran were directed against the regime and pointedly criticized its expenditures in foreign wars.

The Iranian position

Syria and the recent escalation of fighting there present problems for Iran. It dare not show weakness and it cannot demonstrate strength. Iran has a few thousand IRGC troops in Syria complemented by Shia militias from the region. It has no fixed-wing aircraft deployed, hence it cannot strike Israeli targets or defend its troops and installations.

Its Hisbollah ally has an immense number of missiles trained on Israel but Hisbollah knows that Israeli retaliation would be swift, devastating, and disproportionate.

However, shortly after the Israeli jet went down, Hisbollah issued a statement proclaiming, “the beginning of a new strategic era that puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory.” Whether this is an idle boast or a hint at a meaningful air defense is unclear. The latter will depend on Russia.

The Russian dilemma 

Putin’s intervention in Syria demonstrated firm support for an ally and garnered an airbase just north of a decades-old Russian naval base at Tartus. It also showed solidarity with Iran, one of Syria’s few allies. Russia’s position on the recent escalation might seem plain. Not so in today’s Middle East.

Putin has, and wants to retain, good ties with Israel. Though a wellspring of antisemitism since the Romanov days, Russia is respected by many Israelis as the power that liberated the Nazi death camps in Poland and played the largest role in crushing the Reich. Israel has become an important source of hi-tech, especially in military hardware such as drones.

Some analysts hold that Putin’s respect for Israeli ties led to his closing down Syria’s Russian-made air defense system to allow Israeli jets to strike almost effortlessly. Maybe so, but the system worked well enough to down an Israeli jet last week.

In any event, Russia does not want to antagonize Israel. Putin must see Netanyahu’s determination regarding Syria and Iran. He cannot match IDF airpower, in the unlikely event confrontation leads to hostilities. Nor is Putin eager to see the IDF demonstrate to the world the limitations of Russian air defense systems and begin an air campaign supportive of rebel forces.

Above all, Putin wants to avoid an open-ended fight in Syria. He is already juggling ties with Turkey and Syria, who are clashing near Idlib. A long war will burden Moscow’s coffers and put off indefinitely Russia’s longterm ambition of establishing good ties with the Sunni powers. Better for Putin to press all sides to ease off, if he can.

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.

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