Analysis

Israel Braces for Iranian Retaliation for Syria Strike – but War Isn’t Inevitable

There could be a lull before Lebanon's May 6 election and the Americans' May 12 decision on the Iranian nuclear deal, but revenge could come from Lebanon, Syria, Iran or further afield

Missiles on display during a parade marking National Army Day, just outside Tehran, April 18, 2018.
Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Update: Syria Strike Destroyed 200 Missiles, Killed 11 Iranians, pro-Assad Alliance Says

About two and a half weeks after the bombing in which seven members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were killed at the T4 base in Syria, Israel is apparently still waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Iranians’ response, despite their frequent threats of revenge, is being postponed. It’s also possible that as time passes, Tehran is becoming more aware of the possible complex consequences of any action. Still, the working assumption of Israeli defense officials remains that such a response is highly probable.

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The Iranians appear to have many options. Revenge could come on the Syrian border, from the Lebanese border via Hezbollah, directly from Iran by the launch of long-range missiles, or against an Israeli target abroad. In past decades Iran and Hezbollah took part, separately and together, in two attacks in Argentina, a suicide attack in Bulgaria and attempts to strike at Israeli diplomats and tourists in countries including India, Thailand and Azerbaijan.

In any case, Lebanon seems all but out of bounds until the country’s May 6 parliamentary elections, and amid Hezbollah’s fear of being portrayed as an Iranian puppet. The firing of missiles from Iran would exacerbate the claims about Tehran’s missile project a moment before a possible U.S. decision on May 12 to abandon the nuclear agreement. Also, a strike at a target far from the Middle East would require long preparation.

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Despite the tension fueled by warnings from both sides, a war with Iran in Syria is far from inevitable at present. The clash of intentions is clear: Iran is establishing itself militarily in Syria and Israel has declared that it will prevent that by force.

On this issue, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is showing unusual resolve, which for a change is being supported by an equally belligerent top brass, which firmly rejects any Iranian presence. The fate of T4 far inside Syria, about 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the Israeli border, is the same as that of the Syrian Golan Heights; the fate of a Shi’ite militia base is the same as a deployment of Iranian long-range missiles, anti-aircraft systems and drones.

The question is whether this could eventually become nothing more than a bargaining position. In November, Israel tried in vain to influence the agreement for reducing friction in southern Syria that was crafted by the United States, Russia and Jordan. Israel demanded that the Shi’ite militias be sent eastward, to the Daraa-Damascus highway, about 60 kilometers from the border in the Golan. In return it received a faint promise – and even that’s not being fully implemented – that the militias would not reach five to 20 kilometers from the border, depending on the front between the regime and the rebels.

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Presumably there’s an opening here for renewed negotiations over the original demand, after Israel made clear its determination regarding every location in Syria. One problem is getting the Americans to agree.

The United States, while helping the Kurdish fighters, still holds the Tanf enclave in eastern Syria, which constitutes a kind of bottleneck making it hard for Iran to establish control over the main highway from Tehran via Iraq to Damascus and Beirut. For Israel this could be an excellent bargaining chip in exchange for a demand to keep the Iranians far from the Golan. But the Americans are so focused on withdrawing the rest of their forces from Syria that it seems there’s nobody to talk to at the moment.

Israeli defense officials boasted this week of a two-and-a-half-day visit by the head of U.S. Central Command. The visit, which was first reported on by the Kan public broadcaster, is important for coordinating positions with Washington on Iran and Syria, but it doesn’t change the Americans’ plan to leave the region, which is clear to all players involved.

That leaves us with Russia as the great power in charge of decisions on Syria. In fact, this week there were separate meetings with emissaries from Israel and Iran in Sochi. But Israel finds it hard to rely on Moscow as an unbiased intermediary when Russia and Iran are in the same camp supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Meanwhile, both Russia and Israel are exchanging indirect threats. Russia intends to provide S-300 missile systems to the Assad regime, and Israel is threatening to destroy them. When Israeli spokespeople are so inclined, they even threaten to endanger the Assad regime itself.