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Israel and Iran in Syria

Dec. 4, 2017 Israel is devising a strategy to deal with a rising Iran.

By George Friedman

Israel fired missiles at a base near Damascus, Syria, over the weekend. According to Syrian news agency SANA, two Israeli missiles were shot down. Arab media reported that the target was an Iranian military base. After the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel would not tolerate Iranian forces in Syria. Israel previously had chosen not to conduct airstrikes on this reported Iranian base as it had done against other targets – mostly Hezbollah weapons convoys – in Syria. Israel obviously knew this site was well protected, proven by the fact that it had anti-missile capabilities.

Israel has had very limited involvement in Syria. In fact, it has had limited involvement in much of the upheaval that has been sweeping the Middle East. Given Netanyahu’s statement and the substantial public coverage of this airstrike, it would seem that the Israelis are on the threshold of changing this policy. And in changing the policy, Israel is adding to the complexity of a rapidly changing Middle East.

Benjamin Netanyahu Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly Cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on Nov. 26, 2017. GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

Iran’s Rising Power

Last week, I wrote about the fact that since the defeat of the Islamic State, Iran has emerged as a major power in the region, with the potential of becoming the dominant power. Historically, Iran has been a defensive power, hemmed in by Russia, Turkey and the leading global powers, Britain and then the United States. As a result, for example, Iran was divided between Russia on one side and Britain and the U.S. on the other during World War II. It has also faced powerful Sunni forces in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula. In the 1980s, it fought an eight-year war with Iraq that cost it a million casualties and ended in a military draw and a strategic victory for Iraq. Iraq had room for maneuver, invading Kuwait, but Iran had little.

To increase its security, it needs to break out of its encirclement. It has long desired, since before the Islamic Republic emerged, to become the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, both to secure its western frontier against another war with Iraq and to dominate the oil fields. Given the opening that the collapse of the Islamic State provided, Iran must try to take advantage. The goal is to achieve a fait accompli against great powers like the United States and regional powers like Turkey, Israel and Russia.

One of the focuses of Iran’s power is Lebanon, where Iranian-supported Hezbollah is based. Hezbollah also operates in Syria, but a substantial number of Iranian advisers are also there, supporting the Syrians. The Russians are pressing for a peace settlement, based on their reasonable assertion that the Assad regime, with Russian and Iranian support, has effectively won the civil war. The Americans have not rejected the idea out of hand, but it’s not clear what the terms might be.

Whether or not there is a peace agreement, the fighting is declining, and the need for Iranian advisers has declined as well. Bashar Assad reportedly opposes a large Iranian presence in Syria after a settlement, but if Iran wants to create substantial infrastructure to permanently base Iranian forces, then now is the time to do it: The heavy fighting is over, but the Syrians can’t afford to do without the Iranians yet.

This is not as easy as it sounds, since the logistics of basing large numbers of troops in Syria is complex. But if the Iranian goal is to be the dominant power between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, this is a move it would have to make. It would lock in Assad as an ally and put Iran in a position of dominating Lebanon and surrounding western Iraq’s Sunnis from the west and the east. Iran would also have forces near the Turkish border, also in the west and the east.

The Israeli Dilemma

Whether Iran intends to engage Israel is not clear. From the Israeli point of view, a large, permanent presence of troops in Syria could recreate a strategic problem Israel hasn’t had to cope with since after 1973. Israel has had to deal with Hezbollah, but there has been no substantial threat from Syria. Rocket fire from the war there has occasionally landed in Israel, but there has not been a conventional threat that would require permanent deployment of substantial Israeli forces on the Golan. But the situation may not stay this way forever.

The attack over the weekend was designed to tell the Iranians that their more ambitious plans will be met by pre-emptive Israeli strikes. Since the Iranians had to have anticipated this, they likely won’t be deterred. The opportunity is too great. Ideally, the Israelis would use air and missile strikes to destroy Iranian facilities before they are in place. But if Iran will accept the cost, it can surge forces in, presenting Israel with too many targets to destroy.

At a certain point, air power alone isn’t going to be enough. The Israelis faced this in the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel launched primarily an air campaign, which ultimately failed to neutralize Hezbollah. Some missions still require large-scale ground forces. In 2006, the Israelis didn’t think the prize was worth the price. But if the Iranians manage to create a large presence in Syria, airstrikes might not be sufficient in the event of war. And launching ground operations would mean potentially heavy Israeli casualties.

Israel must somehow block an Iranian presence from emerging. But if Iran is determined, Israel’s efforts will not be enough. Israel then must decide on a strategy for dealing with a strong Iranian force in both Syria and Lebanon while also avoiding a costly ground war. This may not be possible. In that case, Israel will need to strengthen Saudi Arabia, and above all to reach an understanding with Turkey. Turkey has historically been uncomfortable with a powerful Iran, and having an Iranian presence on Turkey’s western border in force will make the Turks even more uncomfortable. Israel and Turkey, whose relations now are pretty good, could have a common interest in containing Iran, and a Turkish-Israeli coalition would force Iran to be very careful.

The Iranians have broken out of their box, and now all of the players in the region need to consider how this affects their strategy. What we saw this weekend seemed to be the start of Israel’s response. But the Israelis have not shown their full hand yet, and it seems to me that they don’t like the hand they are going to have to play.

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