- Iran's limited military capabilities in Syria have tempered its reaction to Israeli airstrikes there.
- While unlikely to occur, a stronger Iranian reaction could escalate into a major conflict with Israel, which might spill over into Lebanon and Iraq.
- Only a major development could alter the thinking behind Iran's restraint.
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On Feb. 1, the deputy head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) again threatened Israel, saying Iran could destroy it in three days. Despite these threats, Iran has exercised restraint when it comes to confronting Israel militarily, even after dozens of strikes on Iranian forces and equipment in Syria since 2013. These attacks have been focused on degrading Iran's military capabilities in Syria and interdicting its supply lines to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Israel launched strikes Jan. 21 against Iranian targets in Syria, killing at least 12 Iranians after a suspected Iranian surface-to-surface missile was launched from Syria into the Golan Heights. Iran has struck Israel just one other time since 2013, when Iranian forces fired upward of 50 rockets and mortars in May 2018 into the Golan Heights in response to Israeli attacks. The barrage did not inflict a single casualty and caused negligible damage. When Israel responded with its largest series of airstrikes in Syria, hitting more than 70 targets, Iran did not answer.
Limits on Iran in Syria
Iran's limited capabilities in Syria mean it has so far tempered any escalation. Israel has a significant military advantage there, enjoying overwhelming air superiority that it could use to kill Iranian forces and severely damage their equipment. With the May 2018 counterstrike, Israel demonstrated the depth of its ability to retaliate, showing Iran that responding would only invite an even more forceful reply.
Moreover, Iranian forces in Syria are no longer the asset they once were to Iran's allies, Syria and Russia, when the survival of the government of President Bashar al Assad was in doubt. Now, Iran is at risk of becoming more nuisance than asset due to the Israeli attention Iranian forces attract. An Iranian escalation with Israel would only worsen Iran's standing with Syria and Russia. An Iranian attack on Israel could also break already fraying Iranian-European ties, which Tehran is attempting to salvage.
This means any escalation between Israel and Iran is a low-probability, high-risk event. But if it did occur, it would have significant regional impacts. Iran's missile arsenal in Syria can hit most of Israel, including major population centers like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and key economic and industrial targets. An escalation could draw Hezbollah, Iran's strongest proxy, into the clash — something likely to produce worse disruptions in Lebanon and Israel than those caused by the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict. Iran has also recently introduced ballistic missiles into Iraq, meaning the potential exists for conflict to spread there, too.
Israel demonstrated the depth of its ability to retaliate, showing Iran that responding would only invite an even more forceful reply.
It would take significant changes to alter Iran's strategic calculations in Syria such that Tehran would risk an escalation with Israel. Several tactical signs would indicate a potential escalation, but strategic factors also play a role. For example, a strike that killed a major leader — such as Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the IRGC's elite Quds Force — could prompt a broader response. In addition, a significant escalation by Israel, whether spurred by domestic political pressure through elections or new laws, could also alter Iran's assessment.
A geographic expansion of Israeli strikes in Syria could also portend an escalation; so far, Israeli airstrikes have focused mostly on Greater Damascus and the Golan Heights. And a large jump in the number of Israeli strikes could signal an escalation. Israel has averaged one to two strikes per month, but an intensification could prompt Iran to change its calculations.
Looking Past Syria
Events outside the Syrian theater of operations could also factor in. Although it, too, faces limitations on its freedom of action, Israel could strike targets in Iran itself, such as Iranian nuclear facilities. This is another low-probability, high-risk event that would dramatically impact Iranian policy. Another major conflict between Israeli forces and Hezbollah in Lebanon could also draw a direct Iranian response due to its close ties to its Lebanese proxy, though significant arrestors to such a scenario also exist. And a major change in relations between Iran and others, such as a significant escalation with the United States or a deterioration of European relations, could lessen Iran's reluctance to escalate.
An escalation in Syria could occur regardless of whether either side wants it, increasing the difficulty of predicting it. Though some factors make escalation more or less likely, the spark for conflict often comes from miscommunication or some other mistake. Ultimately, it would take a dramatic shift in the landscape to spark an Iranian escalation, which in turn would almost certainly be met with an overwhelming Israeli response.