Latest attacks unlikely to ignite all-out conflict – but spark could come from a miscalculation
Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent
As the number of Israeli strikes inside Syria have increased over the past four years, so have fears that the next attack will be a tipping point.
Those concerns reached a climax on Thursday when residents of an already volatile neighbourhood woke to news of the biggest assault yet on targets inside Syria: predawn attacks that Israeli officials claim hit Iran’s presence across the country.
The raids were in response to the first direct attack by Iran on Israel since the Iranian revolution 39 years ago, a moment in history that severed previously close ties and set the two states on what successive leaders in each country have believed to be an inexorable path towards war.
The latest Israeli barrage has galvanised a belief that the two foes are on a collision course, sending Israelis to bunkers on the Golan Heights for the first time since 1973, stoking alarm in an anxious Lebanon, and panicking already war-weary Syrians.
It does not, however, mark a new phase in the highly dangerous standoff.
Iran’s calculation, for now, is that it needs to absorb the damage that Israeli jets are causing. Iranian leaders have invested many lives and enormous amounts of money consolidating a presence in the ruins of Syria, and a large-scale retaliation would jeopardise gains that could soon change the balance of power in the region.
By early this year, Iran’s military, working mainly through its myriad proxies, had established a military foothold through much of the country, and were entrenching in bases they shared with Syrian – and sometimes Russian – forces. Out of chaos has come an unprecedented opportunity for Iran to consolidate a physical presence on the doorstep of Israel.
Iran’s military might has been painstakingly assembled through a regular air bridge from Tehran and, lately, via an overland route secured by loyalists through western Iraq and eastern Syria. The mantra of Iran’s military elite had long been to use proxies to fight distant wars. But the temptation of putting Israel within reach of short-range rockets fired by its own forces has changed its equation.
A direct confrontation with the Jewish state has been coveted by some of Iran’s most influential military leaders, among them Maj Gen Qassem Suleimani, whose forces Israeli officials accuse of firing 20 rockets towards the Golan Heights in the early hours of Thursday.
Syrian military video shows air defences trying to intercept Israeli missiles
Suleimani, more than anyone, has been responsible for the regional gains made in Iran’s name since the ill-fated 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. He has acknowledged that Israel remains unfinished business for the tens of thousands of Shia militias, as well as sovereign armies that at least partly fight under his name.
This week’s attack is thought likely to have been ordered to avenge an Israeli strike on a Syrian base near Homs last month, which killed up to eight Iranians and reportedly an air defence system. Before then, an Iranian drone had been launched from Syria into Israel, and Israeli raids had extensively damaged both Syrian air defence systems and bases where Iranians were present.
The war has settled into a rhythm of strike and counter attack, with the Israelis effectively daring Iran to let loose its most powerful weapon, Hezbollah. Crucially, there have been no signs of that happening.
Hezbollah, the militia-cum-political bloc, remains tied down in Syria, and does not want to fight Israel from Lebanese soil for now, knowing the risk that would pose to the state and to its own organisation, flush from its success in last week’s elections.
Israeli officials believe Iran is deliberately keeping away from Lebanon an essential arm of its work in Syria: fitting guidance systems to missiles that senior military officers say could land an unguided rocket inside Israel within 10 square metres of its target.
The officials say they have previously struck attempted transfers of refitted rockets near the Lebanese border and believe the capability to make them has not yet been transferred to the Hezbollah heartland in the south of the country.
Both sides retain a keenly calibrated sense of each other’s boundaries.
Iran knows its growing presence has Israel rattled. But it has the strategic patience to bear the hits it is taking.
Israel knows that although the Iranian barrage set an unwanted precedent, it was almost certainly payback, not necessarily the first salvo in an open war, which neither wants – for now. The spark that could finally ignite things lies not in a wilful act, but in miscalculation.