It is spring in Israel. On the face of it, all appears normal. Yet underlying the everyday is the hint of tension. The low buzz that presages violent events. We know it well in Israel and it has been all around for weeks.
Two nights ago, there was an eruption. The special forces unit (Quds) of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps launched 20 missiles at northern Israel. Israel’s Iron Dome shot down four of them. The others landed in Syria. Israel’s Air Force launched a counter attack. Iranian storage facilities and logistics sites in Syria were targeted along with five Syrian air defence systems.
As the smoke cleared, an uneasy calm returned. Probably not for long.
A series of milestones is approaching in coming weeks, any of which could precipitate further strife. The extended period in which Israel managed to keep itself largely one step removed from the chaos of the Middle East seems to be drawing to a close.
Donald Trump announced this week he will withdraw the US from the nuclear deal with Iran. The stage is set for a return to open confrontation between the US and Iran.
The US has commitments in the region (in Iraq and eastern Syria, in particular) which would be vulnerable to violent pushback by Iran through its proxies.
Israel’s ongoing efforts to roll back Iranian gains in Syria will constitute an element of this larger contest. This, in turn, will increase the chance of confrontation between Israel and Iran.
As Israeli Housing Minister (and former general) Yoav Gallant told Bloomberg News this week, “It’s clear that friction between Iran and the U.S. can lead to a situation in which Iran decides to deploy Hezbollah against Israel … That’s their tool.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week expressed Israel’s readiness for such a confrontation, if it comes. ‘“We don’t want an escalation, but we are prepared for every scenario. We don’t want confrontation, but if there needs to be one, it is better now than later,” the Prime Minister told reports following a meeting of Israel’s Cabinet.
With the situation regarding Iran at such a point of tension, other events which would normally command centre stage are being relegated to a secondary role. Nevertheless, the opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem on May 14 is set to cause an uptick in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The opening will be followed on May 15 by the culmination of Hamas’s six-week “March of Return” campaign in the Gaza Strip. This series of marches to the border fence is intended to revive the fortunes of Hamas, whose Gaza domain is isolated and cash strapped. May 15 is also the anniversary of the State of Israel’s declaration of independence (though strictly speaking the declaration took place on the 14) and is remembered by Palestinians as the date of their Nakba (catastrophe).
It is possible there will be attempts to break through the border fence. Israeli communities are located as little as one kilometre from the fence, so the situation will be tense.
It is worth remembering that Gaza is not hermetically sealed off from the stand-off with Iran in the north. Teheran possesses its clients among the Palestinians, who may be directed to escalate the situation. The small Palestinian Islamic Jihad organisation is a wholly owned franchise of Iran. Hamas’s relations with Teheran are more complex and the movement sought in recent years to distance itself from the Iranian regime. Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar has worked to patch up relations over the last year abd in August Sinwar declared that Iran was once again the largest backer of Hamas.
But it the northern tier of Syria and Lebanon that remains by far the gravest concern for Israel. It is here the ambitions and agendas of Iran appear most directly set on a course of potential collision with the Jewish state.
Iranian assistance has been vital to the cause of Bashar al Assad since the the uprising against him in early 2011. The Syrian president, whose regime rests on a narrow platform of sectarian support, was beset from the beginning by a problem of insufficient loyal manpower. It is the Iranians, not the Russians, who addressed this vital issue throughout the war.
However, Iran, in its usual fashion, did not elect to strengthen the existing, regime-controlled Syrian Arab Army. Rather, in accordance with similar methods pursued in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran has preferred to create its own, Revolutionary Guards-controlled structures in Syria. These defend the Assad regime, to be sure, but they are not under its sole control. Thus, Iran organised and created the National Defence Forces, consisting of Syrian volunteers, mainly from non-Sunni communities and now numbering 50,000 to 60,000 fighters.
Iran also mobilised its proxies throughout the region and brought them to Syria to plug the manpower gap. Thus, there are today about 6000 Lebanese Hizballah fighters on Syrian soil, along with perhaps 3000 Revolutionary Guards personnel and an additional 10,000 to 15,000 members of other Iran-supported Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As the rebellion against Assad has continued to lose ground, so the construction of Iranian infrastructure in Syria has continued. The examples of Hizballah in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq indicate that Iran’s version of assistance is not dismantled when the threat has subsided.
Israel is concerned that this infrastructure, with its contiguous land link to Iraq and thence to Iran itself, is intended primarily for use as a tool of pressure and violence against the Jewish state. Iran is openly and noisily in favour of the destruction of Israel. It wishes to achieve this goal through a long-war strategy of attrition and harassment. Entrenchment in Syria would significantly increase the Iranian ability to pursue this strategy.
While the local and regional militias pose a challenge, the main worry in Jerusalem is the hardware that Iran is seeking to import and base in Syria. Consolidation of this infrastructure – UAV bases, surface-to-surface missiles and anti-aircraft batteries – appears to be what Israel is most determined to prevent.
On April 9, Israeli aircraft struck at a drone facility maintained by the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace force at the T4 base near Palmyra. Fourteen people were killed, among them seven Iranians, including a Revolutionary Guards colonel, Mehdi Deghdan Yazdeli.
On April 30, Israeli aircraft carried out a larger scale raid on two points – the 47 Brigade base south west of Hama, and the Nayrab military airbase close to Aleppo. The New York Times reported that the strikes killed 16 people, including 11 Iranians, and destroyed 200 missiles.
On May 9, following reports of “irregular Iranian movements” in southern Syria, explosions were heard south of Damascus. Israel opened public bomb shelters in the Golan Heights. Regional media reported that Israel attacked an army base south of Damascus, where Iranian personnel were based. Nine militiamen were killed, according to the usually reliable Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Then, in the early hours of May 10, the Iranians launched their 20 missiles, and Israel responded. The Iranian strike was not successful, and it is not clear whether Teheran will consider it to have constituted sufficient retaliation for the Israeli action on April 30. Given the scale of the Israeli response to the attack, this seems unlikely.
What form is further Iranian action likely to take?
Iran has a number of options. It possesses a global terror infrastructure and might seek to attack an Israeli facility or an Israeli or Jewish target abroad. In the past, Teheran and Hizballah have sought retribution in this way. The attack in 1994 on the Amia Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, and the murder of Israeli tourists in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012 are examples of this.
Alternatively, Iran could instruct its Lebanese Hizballah proxies to carry out an attack on Israeli forces across the border from Lebanon. This is how Teheran sought to retaliate for the killing by Israel of a number of Revolutionary Guards and Hizballah personnel close to the Golan Heights in January 2015.
Israeli planners were expecting Iran’s retaliation for the nine dead militiamen was likely to be carried out in Syria, probably with the help of Shia militia personnel on the ground. It was not the first time Iranian personnel have been killed by Israel on Syrian soil. But it was the first time Iranian facilities, not those of proxy groups, were targeted. The Iranian action on May 10 was the first time Israel was directly targeted in a real-time conventional military operation led by the Revolutionary Guards. This is likely to set the pattern for further events to come.
So where is all this heading? Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman has said that allowing Iran to consolidate its infrastructure in Syria would be “agreeing to the Iranians placing a noose around our necks”. This, the defence minister said, would be prevented “at all costs”.
It is not entirely clear, of course, what “consolidation”, “entrenchment” and their prevention actually mean, or could entail. Does Israel require that all presence of the Iranians be removed from Syria, down to the last proxy fighter? If so, then conflict between Teheran and Jerusalem is a near inevitability, since there is no chance of Iran acquiescing to this except by coercion. On the other hand, if the Israeli intention is to prevent the Iranians from transferring certain weapons systems into Syria – advanced anti-aircraft systems, ballistic missiles, UAVs – then conflagration may not be so imminent.
Iran has an interest in keeping to what it is good at. What it is good at is developing paramilitary proxy political-military organisations. This is the key to its success in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. What it is much less good at is conventional warfare, particularly in the air. The country has a poorly equipped, Cold War-era air force. It possesses ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel, to be sure. But Israel has in recent years developed in cooperation with the US some of the most advanced missile defence systems in the world. Iran’s own defences against Israeli retaliation, meanwhile, are far less developed.
This means that Iran may well prefer to absorb Israeli strikes, carrying out a token retaliation for form’s sake. Such an approach would derive not from pacific intentions. Rather, the Iranians would calculate that it is in their interests to continue to quietly build their strength in Syria, while absorbing periodic Israeli disruptions of their arrangements. Since the Iranians may well be engaged, as in Lebanon and Iraq, in a project concerned with the long-term transformation of these countries into clients/puppets of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the immediate settling of scores may not be deemed of paramount urgency.
Of course, this begs the question as to whether Israel will wish to acquiesce to the pursuit of such an Iranian strategy, with all it implies for the future security of Israel. In the meantime, following the fire and smoke of the night of May 10, and until the next move, we are back to the waiting period.