On the heels of President Trump’s intentions to withdraw US troops from Syria, Israel is making it known to the world that the pending US departure will not affect its own Syrian strategy. On Christmas Day Israeli warplanes went into action against Iranian military targets in Syria, striking a weapons storage warehouses, and ammunition supply points. Iran’s significant military presence in Syria has been a major concern for Israel and in 2018 a number of airstrikes were launched against Iranian targets on Syrian soil. Israel’s government has stressed that Iran’s smuggling of weaponry to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon is a red line and as long as it continues, military actions will continue.
Syrian government statements claim that its air defense forces shot down 14 of the 16 missiles launched by Israeli warplanes, however, post-strike satellite photos appear to show that most Israeli missiles reached their targets. The Russian Defense Ministry also reported that two civilian airliners were placed in danger by the air strikes. There are unconfirmed reports that one of the flights was diverted to the Russian airbase outside of Latakia. Igor Konashenkov, a defense ministry spokesman was quoted as saying, “Provocative acts by the Israeli air force endangered two passenger jets, when six of their F-16s carried out air strikes on Syria from Lebanese airspace.”
There has been concern about the blowback the US pullout might bring for Israel, but Tuesday’s air strikes should lay these concerns to rest. The absence of US ground troops in Syria will not alter, or dissuade current and future strategies, and actions of the major players in and around Syria. Russia will continue to consolidate and expand its position with an eye towards shaping how Syria develops post-conflict. The Assad government is still centered on dismantling any and all rebel groups posing a threat to its hold on power. Iran, like Russia, intends to consolidate its presence in Syria now and in the future while continuing to funnel weapons to Hezbollah from there.
And while Iran continues along this path, Israel remains committed to actively defending against it.
Over the last twenty-four hours, the Gaza strip and southern Israel have been transformed into free-fire zones. Even with Egyptian-brokered ceasefire talks between the two sides underway, the volatile situation spilled over once more. A barrage of Hamas rockets and mortars was fired against Israel from positions in Gaza, prompting a wave of Israeli airstrikes against military targets in Palestinian territory. The majority of the projectiles fired by Hamas were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system, but not all. Some did manage to make it through, causing injuries to at least 11 Israeli citizens. According to Palestinian government sources, three people were killed in the Israeli air attacks.
Some analysts believe Hamas is ratcheting up the attacks in order to show its strength during the negotiations. While possible, this strategy runs a serious risk of sparking a full-blown conflict with Israel, even if neither side wants that. Another prospect is that the order to initiate the latest rocket attacks came directly from Tehran. It is well known that the Iranian government has tremendous influence with Hamas. With the regime under increasing pressure from US economic sanctions snapping back into place, Iranian leadership might surmise that instigating a flareup of hostilities between Hamas and Israel will give it some needed breathing room. The timing of events certainly supports this possibility. Coincidences are rare in the world of Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Israeli citizens have been wounded in the attacks, opening a door to the possibility of further escalation. Public pressure on the Israeli government for further military action against Hamas could rise, contradicting the government’s desire to stabilize the situation. Protecting its citizens is the main priority for the Israeli government though. If the Hamas rocket attacks continue, and the number of Israeli casualties rises, this conflict could escalate dangerously. If that occurs, likelihood of a major conflict breaking out increases ten-fold.
Israel responded promptly to the Iranian rocket attacks against Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights with a series of counterstrikes that targeted the Iranian infrastructure inside of Syria. In what was Israel’s largest air operation in Syria since the Yom Kippur War, air and missile strikes were launched against a large number of Iranian targets in Syria. An IDF spokesman claimed 70 military targets were hit including Syrian air defense units after they fired on Israeli fighters.
The Iranian attack on Israeli forces in the Golan was likely launched as a response to Israeli airstrikes against Iranian bases in Syria over the last month. Israel claimed those actions were taken to stave off the growing Iranian military entrenchment there. The Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack in Douma and the resulting Western military response pushed the growing Israel-Iran confrontation into the shadows for a short time. Now the world is again paying close attention.
Russia, France, and Germany have called on Tehran and Tel Aviv to exercise restraint and caution. The United States condemned the Iranian rocket attack and laid the blame on Iran’s shoulders.
The events in Middle East over the past twenty-four hours have demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that Israel and Iran are approaching the brink of full-scale war. There is still time for both nations to take a step back and restore an uneasy peace. However, even they do, Israel and Iran will probably end up embroiled in a major conflict sooner or later.
It is no secret that relations between the United States and Russia have been tumbling downhill for an extended period of time. Last week’s indictments of 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian groups on charges related to attempted meddling in US elections and political process raises the possibility of even chillier relations, and heightened tensions looming in the weeks and months ahead. The indictments are not the only telltale sign of trouble on the horizon.
In Syria, the convoluted situation on the ground and in the skies has created an environment where a direct confrontation between US and Russian forces could come about with very little warning. There have been a high number of close calls in the air over the last six months, leading military officials in the Pentagon to question whether or not deconfliction channels are working as well as advertised. Added to that are the increasing number of reports surfacing in the media that a US airstrike killed a number of Russian military contractors in northern Syria on 7 February. Moscow has downplayed the reports, possibly to prevent questions rising about just why Russian mercenaries were operating in the area of an oil and natural gas field controlled by a US-supported militia. It’s becoming apparent that a US airstrike in support of the militia forces did take place, resulting in perhaps 20-30 Russian citizens having been killed. How or even if Russia will respond is unknown. Given Moscow’s reluctance to shed light on its Syrian operations, a Russian response will probably happen in the shadows and away from the roving eyes of the media, and other observers.
Circumstances being what they are, conditions are turning ripe for an wholly new cold war to blossom in Syria, and in other places where US and Russian interests are at odds. Whether it comes about by design, or happenstance remains to be seen. Moscow and Washington would prefer to keep the current competition in the shadows for as long as possible. Eventually, the maneuvering will be pushed out into the open, and the intentions and objectives of both sides will become clear. That will be the point when things run the risk of turning into a full blown cold war between the United States and Russia, or becoming something even more dangerous.
Things appear to have settled down in Syria following last weekend’s clash between Iran and Israel. An Iranian drone’s violation of Israeli air space set in motion retaliatory air strikes by Israeli warplanes against an Iranian command and control site that was responsible for guiding the Iranian UAV. The Iranian site was situated at the T-4 airbase near Palmyra, Syria. An Israeli F-16 was hit by an SA-5 surface-to-air missile and went down over northern Israel. Not long after the initial raid, Israel’s air force took to the skies again and targeted a large number of Syrian air defense sites, as well as Iranian-manned facilities. The strikes pushed tensions in the area high enough that Russia had to intervene in order to halt further escalation.
What transpired last weekend shouldn’t come as a shock given what has been going on in the vicinity of the Israeli-Syrian border recently. Iran has been maintaining a heavy presence and high level of activity along the border for some time. Israel has bent over backwards to send warnings to Iran, Syria, and Russia through every possible channel that it will not tolerate Iranian activity on its border. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear that a military option would be pursued if an acceptable diplomatic solution was not found.
When the Iranian UAV violated sovereign Israeli air space, Tel Aviv recognized the act as Iran crossing a red line. Diplomacy had failed, and the time came for Israel to unsheathe its sword.
Right now none of the major players in Syria are ready to risk a full-scale conflict. The Assad government, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, are holding most of the cards. If Tehran provokes Israel now it serve the interests of no one, and could affect the balance of power in Syria as it currently stands. Iran will continue to defy Israeli red lines, though it may choose a different arena, and other methods to continue the conflict. Lebanon comes to mind immediately as the most likely next area, and Hezbollah provides a number of options for future Iranian action against Syria.
The situation has quieted for the moment, however, the pause will not be permanent. More clashes between Iran and Israel can be expected in the coming months.