Notes on the Israeli strike on Syria – and Iran

Brian M Downing 

The position here is that Israeli PM Netanyahu should retaliate against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. (“Why is Netanyahu looking on?” March 14 2018.) In addition to upholding norms, it would weaken an enemy that’s reconstituting itself, at least partially, from the fragmentation brought on by years of civil war. It would also wear down Iran, at least if retaliation were strategically placed.

This week Netanyahu launched missiles into Syria. It wasn’t a powerful statement by any means, but neither was it the last word. There’s more to come – for Syria and Iran.

Limited scale

Israel has thus far not taken credit for the strike. Russia, which operates an air defense system in western Syria that can see Israeli jets lift off, claims that two IDF fighters released standoff weapons – cruise missiles – from Lebanese airspace.

The strike did minimal damage to the target, a Syrian airbase east of Homs. The T4 base does not appear related to chemical weapons but Iranian personnel are based there. Accordingly, the raid was strategically placed – more related to conflict with Iran than to Assad’s violation of international agreements. 

Since the civil war began, Israel has routinely struck inside Syria, usually hitting arms caches said to be earmarked for Hisbollah. More recently, Netanyahu has repeated his adamant opposition to the presence of Iranian troops and yesterday’s raid is likely to have many followups. 

NATO and Syria 

President Trump will decide by midweek on a response to Assad’s most recent use of chemical weapons. Personal temperament and political pressure coincide here, making forbearance unlikely. French President Macron signaled some time ago his determination to punish Assad for continued chemical warfare. Britain’s PM May is weighing a response. Syrian and Iranian positions will be prime targets for perhaps all three powers.

 American policy in Syria has never been clearly stated and things got muddier when the president announced a withdrawal in the near future. The White House walked back on it, but ambiguity remains. The US and Britain support militias in southern and eastern Syria. They may launch probes on government troops and their allies, especially Iranians. This will distract government troops from other parts of the country and further impress upon Damascus the futility of trying to retake the entire country. Syria is to remain fragmented.


Tehran wants a strong, unified ally to its west. The coming Israeli/western operations will seek to inflict casualties and expenses on the Islamic Republic. This, in the estimations of the US and Israel, could reignite the turmoil that shook Iran last winter, when many protesters openly criticized their country’s costly foreign wars. 

Tehran is in a difficult position. It’s unable to retaliate effusively against the US and Israel in Syria or environs. The IRGC cannot match the airpower and ground forces their adversaries have at hand. Whatever escalation it might attempt will lead to more targets, casualties, and expenses. 


Nor does Moscow face easy decisions. Its air defenses cannot stop cruise missile strikes from platforms outside Syrian airspace and waters. Some will be interdicted but most will reach their targets. And it’s unclear the defenses can stop the penetration of Israeli and US stealth aircraft equipped with state of the art countermeasures. 

Continued fighting in Syria imposes costs on Russia too – mostly money, though it lost several hundred mercenaries to US airpower last February. The war also corners Moscow with smaller, poorer Shia countries and prevents Putin from gaining influence and arms sales in the Sunni states. Washington and London prefer this. The Syrian people, victims of displacement, fighting, and chemical weapons, are the biggest losers.

Continued Russian losses might open the door to Israeli and Saudi efforts to convince Putin to rethink ties with Iran. Moscow will benefit from Israeli technology, the operation of hydrocarbon rigs in the eastern Mediterranean, and large arms purchases by Sunni powers. Putin may not break entirely with Iran; he will prefer to keep options open. But he might restrict arms sales. The Islamic Republic would be weakened and Saudi-Israeli hegemony assured, at least until new regional fissures and alignments arise in coming years. That’s the Middle East.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *