A Dangerous Israeli-Iranian Escalation in Syria

In the most dangerous escalation since the establishment of the Golan Heights ceasefire line in 1973, Israel and Iran exchanged fire in southwestern Syria under the watch of the United States and Russia.

The sequence of the May 9 military confrontation is telling and shows that both sides are on alert. According to a Syrian monitoring group in London, Israel initiated by striking targets in Baath City, in the Golan demilitarized zone. Iran-backed groups retaliated by launching what the Israeli military described as an unsuccessful barrage of rockets on the Israeli-occupied part of the Golan. Israeli warplanes hit back by targeting Iran-linked military facilities inside Syria.

This week may present an opportune time for the two regional rivals to settle scores and flex muscles. They do not, however, seem eager to initiate a full-fledged regional war. But the four powers concerned—Israel, Iran, the United States, and Russia—are playing a dangerous game over Syrian territory.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, the US-Russia understanding dominated Syria’s air space, which largely restrained Israeli activities in Syria. This dynamic changed after the collapse of the US-Russian ceasefire agreement in southwestern Syria that was reached in July 2017. Since then, there were military skirmishes between Israel and Iran; however, the latest round comes at a critical regional moment.

US President Donald Trump, backed by new hawkish advisors on his national security team, is providing hazardous and unprecedented support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Washington has scrapped the Iran nuclear deal based on debatable information presented by Netanyahu. The White House issued an ill-advised statement that may have served to incite Israel to retaliate, rather than calling for restraint. There is a clear attempt by Netanyahu to use the nuclear deal issue as an excuse to garner US support for Israel in its confrontation against Iran.

These Israeli airstrikes seem to be part of a larger US-Israeli-Saudi plan to up the ante against Iran. The Israeli military noted that al-Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani orchestrated the rocket barrage on May 9. On May 10, the US Treasury Department issued fresh sanctions against individuals and companies that have funded the Quds force. There are also talks about a potential Saudi-led offensive on the key Yemeni seaport of Hodeida, occupied by Houthi forces, a move that was previously vetoed by Washington to prevent an even wider humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Israeli strikes on Iranian assets in Syria also received unprecedented official support from Bahrain, which would not happen without Saudi consent.

In return, Iran continues its tradition of using Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq as a mailbox for messages to its rivals. But it is noteworthy that Iran-backed forces in Syria have been taking one airstrike after another without Russian air cover. In the week between the Lebanese and Iraqi general elections—May 6 and May 12, respectively—and between scrapping the nuclear deal and opening the US embassy in Jerusalem, Iran wanted to remind those concerned that it has cards to play in the Levant and can retaliate if needed. However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani noted that Tehran does not want “new tensions” in the Middle East, while an Iranian official denied his country’s involvement in the rocket launches on the Golan Heights. Russia’s mediation has apparently contained the situation between Iran and Israel.

Russia remains the power broker in Syria. Israel’s airstrikes came as Netanyahu was just returning from Moscow, where he seemingly reached a tacit understanding with President Vladimir Putin that Russia would not restrain Israeli activities. Putin’s red lines for Israel remain the same: not to undermine the Syrian regime or target Russian assets. Unlike the attack on the T4 military facility on April 9 that took Moscow by surprise, Israel informed Russian authorities ahead about the planned overnight strikes. Hence, Netanyahu had US and Russian support in setting the rules of engagement against Iran in southwestern Syria.

The White House should be mindful that the 1973 Golan Heights ceasefire line is one of the most enduring legacies of US policy in the Middle East. The focus on scrapping the Iran nuclear deal, despite European advice, could lead to setbacks for US influence across the Levant and might entangle the US further in the region. Moreover, Russia’s balancing act between Israel and Iran is entering uncharted territory and tension between them can spin out of control if Putin does not set clear and inviolable rules of engagement.