It pays to listen to the BBC occasionally. Last month, the British Broadcasting Corporation revealed satellite photos of an Iranian military base under construction near Damascus. The network based its information on a “Western intelligence source.” On Friday night, the Iranian base was bombarded from the air in an assault that Syrian media are attributing to Israel.
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As far as we know, there were relatively few, if any, casualties – since the construction of the base had not been completed and there were probably few people there late at night. If it was indeed an Israeli attack, the timing of the bombardment can be interpreted as a signal from Jerusalem to Tehran, and its Assad regime host in Syria, but also to the world powers.
According to Tehran’s own statements, and interpretations by Israeli intelligence, it seems the Iranians want to make a few moves simultaneously in Syria, as part of efforts to gain a major piece of the pie when the Assad regime successfully survives the civil war.
Among other things, Iran has begun building military bases, funded and deployed Shi’ite militias that operate according to its instructions, and conducted talks about the establishment of an Iranian air base and even a naval base.
Despite Israel’s warnings, there has been no response from the international community to all these developments. Moreover, in the southern Syria cease-fire agreement signed last month by the United States, Russia and Jordan, only a short distance was set to keep Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from the Israeli border on the Golan Heights.
The practical significance of this was that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its militia fighters (Shi’ites from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, along with Hezbollah militants) would be 5 to 20 kilometers (3 to 12 miles) from the border. From Israel’s point of view, this is not a suitable distance. Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot told the Saudi online newspaper Elaph some two weeks ago that Israel demands the Iranians be moved east of the Damascus-Suwayda road. In other words, 50 to 60 kilometers from Israel’s border.
It seems the bombardment attributed to Israel seeks to send the message that it means what it says with its public threats, and that Iran’s continued inroads into Syria will encounter Israel’s active military opposition. The base that was attacked is located south of Damascus, within the minimal range Eisenkot spoke of in the interview.
Syria is currently in a kind of twilight zone: The survival of President Bashar Assad and his regime has been more or less assured (unless Assad is assassinated), thanks to the military support of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. This is the time when new rules of the game are emerging. Israel, even in previous military actions attributed to it, appears to be intervening by force in places where the world powers are ignoring the warnings it conveys, both through diplomatic channels and the media.
According to the Syrian media, Syrian army anti-aircraft batteries responded to the missiles allegedly fired by the Israel Air Force. That’s been the standard Syrian response over recent months, but so far Damascus has not reported any successes in these attempted intercepts.
The more important question is how Iran will behave in the long run: Will it increase its efforts to strengthen its position in Syria and attempt to initiate the opening of a new front – by means of its terror network – along the Israeli border on the Golan?
Tehran has a clear strategic goal: Opening up a land corridor connecting Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Premature military escalation might not serve its purposes. However, it is now clear that both sides are walking on the edge – the Iranians in increasing their military strength in Syria, and Israel in the aerial attacks attributed to it.
The second critical question involves Russia. Although Russia and Iran cooperated in the war on Assad’s side, their relationship is more complex now. Gen. (ret.) John R. Allen led the battle against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and was recently installed as president of the Brookings Institute. Speaking during the Saban Forum in Washington on Friday, he said Tehran and Moscow’s interests no longer overlap – from the moment the magnitude of the war against the rebels began to subside. That is also the impression in Israel.
Russia has not lifted a finger so far to thwart the attacks attributed to Israel against the arms convoys to Hezbollah and Iranian installations in Syria, though it deployed anti-aircraft batteries in western Syria and can probably pinpoint Israeli aircraft movement in the area.
If the current escalation really worries Moscow, it can try to create new rules of the game in southern Syria. As of now, that has yet to happen.