Why Iran and Israel Are Clashing in Syria

By Sewell
Chan, NY Times, May 10, 2018

simmering conflict between Israel and Iran escalated overnight when Israeli
jets struck dozens of Iranian targets in neighboring Syria. The strikes came
after what the Israeli military described as an Iranian rocket attack against its forces in the Golan Heights.
tanks on Thursday in the Golan Heights near Syria.CreditMenahem Kahana/Agence
France-Presse — Getty Images
Israelis said it was Iran’s first direct rocket attack against Israeli targets.
Thursday morning, the Israeli Air Force had destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s
military infrastructure in Syria, according to Israel’s defense minister,
Avigdor Lieberman.
Why is
Iran in Syria?
Iran is
one of the most powerful backers of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. It
first intervened in the war to help defend Mr. Assad against Syrian rebels and
later helped Syrian government forces against the Islamic State.
Iran has
taken advantage of the chaos of Syria’s war to build a substantial military infrastructure there. It has built and
trained large Shiite militias with thousands of fighters and sent advisers from
its powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps to Syrian military bases.
though the Syrian rebels have steadily lost ground and no clear threats to Mr. Assad’s rule remain, Iran and its
allies have stayed in Syria, shifting their focus to creating a military
infrastructure there that Israel sees as a threat. Iran continues to train and
equip fighters while strengthening ties with its Shiite allies in Iraq and the
Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon in hopes of building a united front
in the event of a new war.
fundamental reason why Syria has become a battleground is because of the
Islamic Republic’s declared ideology and strategy since 1979 of fighting Israel
and its supporters,” said Amir Toumaj, a research analyst at the Foundation for
Defense of Democracies, which takes a hawkish stance on Iran. “Prior to 1979,
Iran and Israel were allies. Iranians have no material stake in the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
When Iran
escalated its intervention in Syria to back up Mr. Assad, it gradually brought
in heavy equipment such as the armed drone that Israel said crossed into its
airspace in February.
now, thanks to Russian military intervention, Assad is secured, though pockets
of insurgents remain. So the Islamic Republic can afford to lessen investment
against insurgents and focus more on Israel,” Mr. Toumaj said. “The strategy is
to make Syria into a viable front, like southern Lebanon, for both offensive
and defense purposes, should another major war break out between Hezbollah and
Israel. Iran has also tried to bring in defensive assets to Syria such as Tor
air defense system, which Israel has struck to prevent.”
seen from Damascus, Syria, on Thursday.CreditAlaa Al-Faqir/Reuters

How has
Israel responded?

has launched scores of airstrikes on Syria to try to prevent the transfer of
advanced weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, according to Natan Sachs, director of
the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Israeli government rarely confirms individual strikes, and the Syrian government
and Hezbollah do not always acknowledge when they have been hit. But last
August, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the departing commander of the Israeli Air Force,
said Israel had launched nearly 100 strikes on convoys since 2012. But unlike
Russia and Iran, Israel has done little to sway the outcome of Syria’s civil
didn’t have a horse in that race, feeling no love for Assad, but fearing the
chaos that might follow him,” Mr. Sachs said. “Now, with the victory of the
Assad-Iran side, Iran’s main spoils is a long-term military presence in Syria,
entrenching it in the country and linking it to Lebanon. This is something
Israel will not accept. It now fears the current trend in Syria, with growing
Iranian presence, and so it has a strong incentive to stop things now before
Iran gets further entrenched.”
Trump’s announcement a factor in the new fighting?
conflict between Israel and Iran escalated days after President Trump announced
the withdrawal of the United States from a 2015 multinational nuclear deal with Tehran. Israel had railed
against the agreement since before its inception and Mr. Trump had campaigned
on the promise of withdrawing from it.
concern now is that the shadow war Israel and Iran have been waging for years, most
recently in Syria under the cover of the civil war there, has now burst into
the open.
“It’s not
a proxy war. It’s a direct war and that’s what makes it particularly
dangerous,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel.
“Israel and Iran have been in a cold war for maybe 20 years now, but now it’s
out in the open: direct, kinetic engagement between the forces, with Iranian
casualties mounting. The potential for escalation is much greater now than
He said
that Mr. Trump’s announcement might not have helped, but that the stage for the
conflict was set earlier this year. Iran pushed allied militias toward the
Golan Heights and moved rockets and rocket production into Syria to better
supply Hezbollah with more accurate weaponry. Iran also installed air-defense
systems that can reach into Israel.
happens now?
Mr. Sachs
said fighting between Iran and Israel in Syria is likely to continue.
back and forth — an Iranian attack on Israeli posts on the Golan and a
widespread Israeli response against numerous Iranian targets in Syria — was not
a one-off flare-up or a case of hot heads prevailing,” he said. “This is part
of a structural conflict unfolding between Israel and Iran in Syria.”
He added:
“Both sides will test each other’s limits — and Israel’s strict limits were
visibly clear in this strike. Iran will now feel the need to react, and push
back. Iran is not likely to give up on its goals in Syria after expending so
much effort in the civil war there. They may even try to bring Lebanon’s
Hezbollah into the fray at some point. And Israel is certainly not going to
back down from stopping the Iranian entrenchment.”
Mr. Indyk
called the tensions “a car with an accelerator and no brake.” Asked where the
situation goes from here, he replied: “Only to a bad place.”
worst-case scenario, he said, is that the conflict spreads to Lebanon and
Hezbollah decides to launch rockets into Israel from there and Israel responds
as it has to the attacks from Syria.

“It’s in
Israel’s interest to keep the conflict in Syria, where Israel has an
overwhelming advantage,” he said. “Iran may look elsewhere, where they have
more leverage, and that includes terrorist activity.”