Early morning local time on May 10, Iranian and Syrian Arab Army units launched their anticipated retaliatory strike against Israeli military targets in the Golan Heights. This event follows weeks of escalating Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria, most recently on May 9 on a target reportedly affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the southern suburbs of Damascus. The initial Iranian and Syrian attack, which according to the Israel Defense Forces consisted of at least 20 rockets, was immediately met with wide-ranging Israeli counterstrikes that targeted numerous Syrian and Iranian positions across western Syria, including a large number of targets in the Damascus area.
Prior to this latest escalation in the fighting, Israeli and American sources highlighted the increasing probability that the Iranians would respond militarily. Iran has in recent weeks increased its delivery of equipment and weapons to Syria, and Tehran had repeatedly warned that consistent Israeli strikes on its positions in the country will not go unanswered. Iran has been attempting to avoid a major war with Israel, especially as it tries to consolidate its position in Syria and maintain the Syrian loyalist forces' momentum against the rebels. The country is also facing the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal, and for now it is relying on the deal's other signatories to remain committed to the accord — something they may be less willing to do if Iran dramatically escalates its conflict with Israel in Syria. Nevertheless, Iran, and particularly the hardliners in the IRGC, is increasingly determined to push back against the Israeli airstrikes and re-establish a semblance of deterrence.
Both Iran and Israel are unlikely to try to widen their conflict beyond the Syrian battle space, but there remains a risk that hostilities between the two could spiral out of control.
On the Israeli side, Tel Aviv has become determined to do something about the growing Iranian presence in Syria, and since its diplomatic approach with Russia has largely failed to produce results, it has increasingly been willing to rely on its own military to step in. But it was still critical for Israel to de-conflict its actions in Syria with Russia, as well as maintain as close a collaboration with the United States as possible while taking a more assertive and aggressive stance against Iran. In pursuit of the former, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Moscow May 9, where he held high-level talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to convince him to stand aside as Israel escalated its military response to the Iranian presence in Syria. For the latter, the Israelis have sought to act in concert with the United States by encouraging Washington to pursue a hard line against Iran, which includes making the decision for U.S. forces to remain in Syria and for the United States to abandon the JCPOA.
The latest round of strikes and counterstrikes between Israel and Syria represents a serious escalation in the conflict, and it paves the way for Israel to further intensify its efforts against the Iranian presence in Syria. While both Iran and Israel are unlikely to try to widen their conflict beyond the Syrian battle space, there is still a risk that hostilities between the two could spiral by moving into the Lebanese theater or potentially drawing in Russia and the United States. In eastern Syria, U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have already engaged in small skirmishes with loyalist forces supported by Iran. Iranian and Syrian air defenses also risk mistaking the aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition with planes belonging to the Israeli air forces, since they are quite similar. Additionally, loyalist militias in Syria that are linked to Iran could retaliate against U.S. forces. Russia's priority, in all of this, will undoubtedly be to swiftly de-escalate the conflict between Iran and Israel, given the risks it poses to Russian forces and objectives in Syria.