Even if for the time being Iran is not issuing threats in response to the killing of six of its military officials in southern Syria on Sunday, the incident is deepening Israel's involvement in Syria's civil war.
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A conspiracy theory was revived this week that suggests that the senior Iranian officers and estimated half-dozen Hezbollah members who were killed in the aerial attack, which has been attributed to Israel by the media, were not killed in the area of Quneitra, near Israel's northern border, but rather in the Qalamoun mountains on the Syrian-Lebanese border. And it was not Israel that killed them, but rather the Islamist Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. So Hezbollah’s accusation that Israel was responsible is simply a lie, the theory goes, because the militant Shi'ite organization does not want to admit that it actually sustained the blow at the hands of the rebels.
That would be a particularly interesting story if the Nusra Front had only coordinated matters with the leadership of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which confirmed the deaths of the senior Iranians in what it says was an Israeli attack. So be it. Conflicting versions of events are part and parcel of the fighting in Syria, but there is no doubt that the missile attack very much played into the hands of the Nusra Front, whose fighters control the Quneitra crossing and portions of Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
In any event, Israel is suspected of providing assistance to the Nusra Front, which is on the list of terror organizations, and is also thought to be getting help in return from that group. Specifically, according to reports on rebel websites, anti-Assad fighters in the Syrian Golan Heights provide ongoing intelligence information to Israel, and also receive help from the latter in the form of weapons and military training. One website even said that Israel is establishing the counterpart in the Syrian Golan of Israel’s old militia ally in Lebanon, the South Lebanon Army, and that the new entity relies on support from the rebels.
It’s not clear if Israel intended to and/or actually hit the senior Iranian military personnel in the convoy, but it’s reasonable to assume that Israel would have known that they were part of the group thought to have been planning and coordinating the transfer of additional Hezbollah forces to the Syrian Golan so as to wrest control over rebel strongholds there.
One of the victims of the aerial attack, Abu Ali Tabatabai, a senior Hezbollah figure who had commanded the Radwan rapid intervention force, had previously worked in the Qalamoun mountain sector, and it’s possible that he had been tapped to command the Golan Heights front. Tabatabai took orders from Mohammed Ali Allahdadi, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard general, who was also killed Sunday. Allahdadi had reported directly to Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Forces which oversee the operations of Iranian fighters in Southern Lebanon and Syria, among other things. This is an entire chain of command that the Revolutionary Guards controls, independently of the government and army of Iran, but when senior Iranian personalities are hit, it would be the highest echelons of leadership in Iran, under Supreme Leader Ali Hosseini Khamenei, that would decide if and how to respond.
Iran enjoys complete autonomy in how it runs and directs Syrian President Bashar Assad’s battle against the rebels. Unlike the United States or Arab countries, Iran does not require backing from an international coalition, especially in light of the fact that Russia sees eye-to-eye with respect to a solution of the Syrian conflict and Assad’s personal future. Moreover, Tehran can also count on the fact that Israel alone will not act directly against the Assad regime. There appears to be a quiet understanding that Iran will not respond as long as Israel focuses its attacks on Hezbollah targets in Syria. Iran is also insisting that there be no link between the ongoing talks that it is conducting with the Western powers on its nuclear program, and the issues involving Syria, Iraq or the war against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. With respect to the Iraqi front, there is unofficial cooperation and a convergence of interests in any event between Iran and the United States against ISIS, whereas the “Syrian file” is being held hostage by Iran in an effort to advance its position concerning a solution in Syria.
However, the assassination of the senior Iranians, reportedly by Israel, could compromise these unofficial understandings, particularly when Iran suspects that action on this scale would have had to be coordinated between Israel and the American administration. One can assume that under other circumstances in Iran, under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, or if nuclear negotiations were not due to resume in a matter of weeks – Iran would have accused the Americans directly for the missile attack, and may even have threatened retaliation against Israeli and American targets. Such threats have not been made this time, though, and it appears that Iran is sticking to its policy of separation between its strategic goals vis-à-vis the United States, and “tactical” events such as the assassination of the Revolutionary Guard officers. The announcement that “the response will come at a time and place to be decided” frees both Iran and Hezbollah for the moment from the need to turn the assassinations into a central issue that could divert the current focus of fighting in Syria and could open a wider front in Lebanon.
Nonetheless, such action expands the extent of Israel’s involvement in the war in Syria, and turns Israel into an additional important element in the constellation of strategic considerations with respect to Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. And this is particularly true when the target that was attacked was not a Hezbollah arms convoy or depot – indeed, such acts have long since gained international legitimacy – but rather a command group responsible for directing a military front.
And here Israel is drawing another clear red line, demonstrating that as long as the rebel groups control a portion of the Syrian Golan, and even if they are affiliated with Al-Qaida – Israel will not view that as a threat per se. Still, the entry of Hezbollah forces and Iranian fighters there would be considered a strategic turning point that would likely be met by violent Israeli resistance.
From Iran’s standpoint, such a situation threatens the "monopoly" it has in Syria, because such an Israeli approach would rope President Assad into the problem as well, since his desire to reassert control in his part of the Golan Heights with the help of Hezbollah forces and Iran would be halted by Israel. At the moment, it would leave control in the hands of the rebels, who, even without coordination with Israel, will view the Jewish state as a means of protection against Assad’s forces.