Nature abhors a vacuum. So does the world of power politics. It should come as no surprise that after President Trump declared he would be withdrawing US forces from Syria, the rush to fill the vacuum has heated up even before the US is out. It is not only that Daesh is trying to show they are not defeated yet—and thus claimed to be responsible for the bombing that killed four Americans; it is also that there are signs that the Iranians have again increased their flow of arms into Syria.
Israeli officials say the new Iranian effort began after the Trump announcement. It focuses more on putting advanced missiles into existing Syrian bases—perhaps, believing that the Russians having committed to securing the Assad regime, would deter the Israelis from launching strikes against Syria’s bases. No doubt, the Iranian hope or expectation was based on the tougher posture the Russians took toward Israel following the shoot down of one of their aircraft in which fifteen Russian servicemen were killed. Ironically, it was Syrian anti-aircraft missiles that shot down the plane well after Israeli planes had already returned to Israel from their strike mission; however, since the Russians are in Syria to save Assad, they found it expedient to blame the Israelis and not the regime they intervened to secure.
But if the Iranians counted on the Russians to deter or prevent Israeli strikes now against Syrian bases or facilities where the Iranians are operating, they were sadly mistaken. Yes, the Russians have again criticized the Israelis for “arbitrary” air strikes. But the Russians who want the US to leave Syria probably also miscalculated. Israel’s threshold for acting against the Iranians in Syria has become lower not higher after the US announcement. Why? With the US still there, Iran had reason to be somewhat more cautious for at least two reasons: first, to avoid possibly provoking an American military response against their forces; and second to avoid Russian pressures not to act in a way that would give the Americans a reason to stay in Syria. But with the Americans leaving, the Iranians apparently believed this was a good time to become more active—and the Russians might have thought so as well. After all, in many ways the Qods Force advisors with their Shia militia proxies are the boots on the ground for the Russians and Assad in filling the vacuum and taking on the remnants of Daesh.
However, both the Russians and Iranians failed to understand that with the US leaving, Israel also was going to feel the need to be more assertive in establishing its limits or red-lines in Syria. True, it had already carried out over 200 operations in Syria to make the point that it would not tolerate the Iranians creating in Syria what they have created in Lebanon. But the Trump announcement further signaled that Israel was on its own—and the US would do nothing to limit either Iran’s further entrenchment or its development of a more advanced ballistic missile capability in Syria. Given the new circumstances, the Israelis chose to act. And, now, after having greatly reduced the number of their operations in Syria following the shoot down of the Russian plane, they have carried out two operations within 8 days.
The targets in and around Damascus, including at the Damascus international airport, have been Iranian weapon depots and warehouses, intelligence sites and training bases. In response, the Iranians launched a large ballistic missile carrying a significant warhead toward an Israeli ski resort on Mt Hermon in the Golan Heights. There many Israeli tourists at the site. The Israelis shot down the missile and then retaliated against different Iranian facilities, hitting weapons and a base at al Kiswah south of Damascus. They also destroyed those Syrian air defense batteries that fired on the Israeli aircraft. After retaliating, the IDF spokesman said that the Iranian missile “was fired by an Iranian force from the Damascus area from inside territory [the Syrian government] promised would not host an Iranian presence.”
Clearly, the Iranians are in places in Syria that are co-located with the Syrian military as well as at their own bases. Israel was acting to show they will prevent a certain kind of Iranian build-up.
For its part, the rocket Iran fired crossed a line. Just as last March when they flew an armed drone into Israel—for the first time being prepared to attack the Israelis directly and not through proxies from Syria—so now the size and payload of the missile they launched showed an Iranian readiness to inflict much more direct damage on the Israelis. Once again, they were frustrated by the Israelis and once again it was the Iranians, not the Israelis, who suffered casualties.
Will this calm the situation for the time-being? Maybe but with the US in the process of withdrawing from Syria, Israel will continue to believe it must establish its own red-lines that if crossed by the Iranians will trigger far tougher Israel actions. The question now is will the Iranians, having again suffered military losses in Syria, decide to de-escalate and adopt a lower-key posture in Syria. In no circumstances will they leave Syria. Whatever the Israelis say, they know Iran is not going to leave. But what the Israelis seek is a limitation on the character of the Iranian presence and the certainty that missiles with advanced guidance systems will not be deployed there.
The US announcement on withdrawal may have contributed to the escalation this week between the Israelis and Iranians. But it is not the source of the conflict. When the Iranian air force chief proclaims that “We’re ready for the decisive war that will bring about Israel’s disappearance from the earth,” the Israelis understand what they are facing and it guarantees that Israel’s leaders will feel they must deny the Iranians the ability to act on such threats. They will continue to act decisively against Iranian moves to create a more serious threat to Israel from Syria and Lebanon. And, they will signal the Iranians that if they think they can trigger an attack with thousands of rockets against Israel from Lebanon and Syria and remain immune from Israeli retaliation directly against Iran, they need to think again.
No one in the region or outside should think that a war that may start in Lebanon will not spread to the rest of the region. Israel will hit high value targets in Iran if it is being hit by thousands of Hezbollah and Iranian rockets from Lebanon and Syria. Who will Iran hit in return? Its leaders feeling they can add little to what Hezbollah rockets are doing may choose to hit countries in the Gulf. This scenario could erupt quickly and not be contained so easily.
It is hard to see whose interests would be served by such a conflict. If the Trump administration were to explain bluntly to the Russians that such a conflict would draw the US back into the region, it would give Putin an incentive to do more to limit what the Iranians do in Syria. Avoiding a larger regional conflict may well depend on imposing such limits.