Israel's Iran Feud Could Spark Dangerous New Phase in Syrian War

(Bloomberg) -- For years, Israel has quietly carried out air strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria. This month, in a dramatic about-face, it began talking about it.

Concerned that the U.S. plan to withdraw from Syria would leave another border vulnerable to attack by Iran and its proxies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy shift sends a clear message to external and domestic audiences as campaigning for parliamentary elections in April gets under way. It also increases the risk that the region will tumble into a new war.

“By being outspoken about these attacks, the Israelis are also provoking the Iranians into adopting a more aggressive posture themselves,” said Heiko Wimmen, project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at International Crisis Group.

A dangerous new phase of Syria’s civil war is taking shape as the major battles give way to strategic struggles over the country’s future. Israel says it’s determined to prevent Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah from establishing a permanent base in Syria and may see a window of opportunity at a time when the Islamic Republic is weakened by U.S. sanctions. Analysts say Iran, too, sees in the American pullout a chance to expand its influence.

The new normal was on display last week, when the Israeli military reported it had struck multiple Iranian targets in Syria, and hit Syrian air defenses after they fired at its planes. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, 12 Iranian fighters and six Syrian soldiers were among 21 killed.

Iran responded by declaring it was ready to fight.

“If Israel does anything to touch off a new war, then that will be the war leading to its annihilation,” Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy head of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was quoted as saying by the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency. “Our strategy is to wipe Israel from the political geography of the world and it appears that the perverse things Israel is doing will bring itself closer to this reality.”

New Normal

Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, questioned Israel’s wisdom in abandoning its policy of ambiguity.

“From our point of view we’re doing what is totally justified in self-defense, but here we are flying around in Syrian airspace as if it’s our own, no regime can allow that,” Freilich said. “And then, if we talk about that in public that just makes it worse, that humiliates the Syrians.”

Syria’s envoy to the United Nations, Bashar Al Jaafari, raised the prospect of a retaliatory strike at a Security Council meeting last week, asking whether his country needed to practice “its legitimate right of self-defense and respond to Israel’s aggression on the Damascus international airport with a similar one on Tel Aviv airport?”

Israel started lifting the veil on its Syria operations this month. Days before he left office, military chief Gadi Eisenkot told the New York Times that Israel had struck thousands of Iranian targets over the past two years. And Netanyahu said Israel has hit hundreds of targets belonging to Iran and Hezbollah, whose fighters are also propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In the 12 years since Israel and Hezbollah last warred, the Lebanese group has built up an arsenal of as many as 150,000 missiles, according to some Israeli estimates. Israel says a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria would give the Islamic Republic an uninterrupted weapons conduit from Tehran to Beirut.

An Israeli government spokesman declined to comment on the new openness. But analysts say Netanyahu, who’s seeking a fifth term in office in the face of potential corruption charges, may be working to cement his reputation as a capable defender of Israel’s security interests.

Approaching Vote

Yet Israel’s new talkativeness could also complicate relations with Russia, whose entry into the war turned the tide in Assad’s favor. Ties have been strained over the past year by the downing of Israeli and Russian warplanes in the crossfire of Israel-Iran jousting in Syria. After Israel’s strike on Monday, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Israel’s “practice of arbitrary strikes” should be “ruled out.”

Former Israel air force commander Amir Eshel, who stepped down in 2017, told a security conference Monday that “the only one who can get Iran out of Syria is Russia” and as Israel expands its operations there, “there’s a risk that the Russians will turn on us, too.”

A Russian delegation was in Israel this week to meet with officials including Netanyahu.

“Netanyahu is calculating or miscalculating that Iran would not retaliate against his attacks in Syria,” said Fawaz Gerges, a London School of Economics professor of international relations. “I could easily imagine a scenario whereby Iran or its allies retaliate against Israeli attacks, triggering all-out war.”

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