Is the Syrian Stalemate Between Iran and Israel About to End?

6 MINS READApr 13, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
An Israeli army vehicle drives on the road along the border fence that separates the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights and Syria on July 19, 2017.

An Israeli army vehicle drives on the road along the border fence that separates the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights and Syria.

  • As uncertainty about future U.S. action against Iran increases, Iran and Israel will seek to deter each other along Israel's northern border.
  • Iran will aim to prevent a direct Israeli attack against the Islamic republic by building up bases in Syria and Lebanon, while Israel will seek to undermine this threat by pushing the United States to take action against Tehran.
  • Israel will accept the dangers of a regional war so long as the United States provides direct cooperation against Iran.

Hundreds of kilometers of Syria and Iraq separate Israel and Iran, but the civil war in Syria has brought the two foes nose to nose. Early on April 9, Israel struck the Tiyas (T4) air base northeast of Damascus. To some, it appeared that Israel was acting on behalf of the United States in retaliating against the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons. In reality, Israel was in pursuit of other quarry: Iran and Hezbollah, which have redoubled their efforts to challenge Israel along its northern border.

But rhetoric between the two sides is one thing; actual war is quite another. Neither side is eager to launch a first strike that would lead to a major regional war, as the consequences would be grave for both. Instead, both are positioning themselves for a direct conflict between Tehran and Washington. Iran hopes to dissuade Israel from attacking it during, or before, such a conflict by pointing Hezbollah's missile arsenal at Israel's heartland. And as Israel prods the United States to ratchet up the offense against Iran, it is also taking steps to decrease the threats Iran and its principal ally might pose against it. But as Israel and Iran move to parry each other's threat, the United States' next move will go a long way to determining the fate of their battle.

The Big Picture

In its 2018 Second-Quarter Forecast, Stratfor noted that Iran would risk coming face to face with Israel as it conducted operations against rebel positions in southern Syria. We also noted that Israel probably will take its narrow window of opportunity to strike at Hezbollah and other Iranian units in Syria, lest the latter entrench themselves along the border with Israel.

Israel's Worries About Northern Exposure

Secure in the east and south thanks to peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, Israel has no such luxury in the north, where it remains in a state of war with Syria and Lebanon. For Israel, the latter represents possibly the biggest threat. While Lebanon's size and fractured demographic nature would normally dilute any threat to emanate from its territory, the growing strength of the militant group Hezbollah is creating headaches for Israel.

Without question, Iran and Hezbollah will not be marching on Tel Aviv anytime soon, but their pursuit of asymmetric capabilities — instead of conventional ones — has placed new strategic and political constraints on Israel, leading the country to encourage the United States to adopt a more strident stance against Tehran. Any forceful U.S. action against Iran would likely precipitate a barrage of Hezbollah missiles against Israel, but the payoff for Israeli policymakers would be much bigger: Because Israel views Iran's nuclear program — constrained as it is by the joint nuclear deal — as an existential threat, it is willing to incur any strikes from groups in Lebanon and Syria if it entails the destruction of Iran's nuclear program.

Iran, however, has strengthened its supply networks to Hezbollah in recent years, ensuring that the militant group could damage Israel to a far greater degree. Accordingly, Israel has taken periodic action against the network, conducting airstrikes to disrupt and delay Iran and Hezbollah. By weakening Hezbollah's networks with sporadic hits, Israel is mitigating the risk its forces would encounter in any future incursion into Lebanon. And thanks to the arrival of a friendly administration in the White House, Israel is pushing further to see how much it can strike Iran and Hezbollah in Syria without triggering a major war.

Iran Brings the Battle Closer

Iran, however, is hardly standing still. The country entered the Syrian civil war to support Syrian President Bashar al Assad, yet its strategy also includes efforts to issue a more credible challenge to Israel and deter any attacks from the country. To that end, Iran has constructed multiple bases and installations near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, notably near al-Kiswah and Damascus airport, from which Tehran could retaliate against Israel if the latter's greatest backer, the United States, wages war on the Islamic republic elsewhere.

As it consolidates its bases, Iran is also testing the waters to determine how much action it can take against Israel before igniting a large-scale conflagration. Iran flew a drone into Israeli airspace in February, apparently in an effort to probe the country's defenses. (Iran's drone operations might have also motivated Israel's strike on the T4 air base, as early images depicted a strike on the base's drone facilities.) But a direct attack on Israel is ultimately too risky for Iran; instead, Tehran is posturing for a potential conflict that others would impose on it, rather than preparing for one in which it would fire the opening salvo.

Dealing With the Danger

Amid the threat posed by Iran's missile factories and bases in Syria and Lebanon, Israel is preparing a number of countermeasures, including Juniper Cobra, a joint Israeli-U.S. endeavor to test Israel's ability to respond to a large-scale missile attack. But defensive action has its limits, and even advanced missile defense systems cannot intercept all incoming projectiles.

Likewise, Israel's irregular strikes on Syrian territory to hamper Hezbollah and Iran from improving their capabilities are not foolproof. After all, Hezbollah has maintained its fighting capability and continues to construct missile factories, all while news emerges regarding the existence of more Iranian bases inside Syria. Because of the continued threat posed by Hezbollah and Iran, Israel is likely to eventually stage raids on two of Hezbollah's Iranian-built, underground missile factories, one of which reportedly is deep in the Bekaa Valley and the other along the Lebanese coastline between Sidon and Tyre. While still under construction, the missile factories represent a new threat to Israel's northern frontier, as they will shorten the time it takes for Hezbollah to resupply its arsenal during any conflict.

Israel also will seek to disrupt Iran in Syria by creating a buffer zone between it and Iranian bases near the Golan Heights. Already, Israel has sought to cultivate allies in the area amid its occasional attacks on Syrian and Iranian assets. In so doing, Israel will be mindful of coordinating with Russia to negate the possibility of any accidental clashes or confrontations. In the April 9 strike, Israel avoided hitting Russian forces, which often use the T4 base, according to reports.

Syria's civil war has provided a new arena of conflict between Israel and Iran, as both seek to deter the other from conducting a large-scale attack. Tehran will continue to exert pressure on Israel by establishing bases in Syria and improving Hezbollah's ability to fire rockets at its primary adversary, while Israel will continue its isolated air strikes and covert action to weaken the threat and degrade the strength of its foes. Ultimately, however, Israel will not be the master of its own fate: Only the United States can end the threat from Tehran, either by terminating the Iranian nuclear program or, potentially, even the Islamic republic itself. Devoid of the ability to do either by itself, Israel can do nothing but work to mitigate the threat from the north — even at the risk of igniting a regional war through its actions.

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