Analysis

Alleged Israeli Strike in Syria: Why Iran's Silence Speaks Volumes

Reported Israeli strike on a military site near Damascus puts Tehran to a test it doesn’t want

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, Iran November 1, 2017.
SPUTNIK/REUTERS

What exactly was attacked in Syria? According to leading Iranian news outlets, no Iranian bases were attacked near Damascus. At most it was  a “Syrian army weapons depot”  a base near Damascus. And yet according to a more detailed report by the Turkish new agency Anadolu, not only was a weapons base attacked, it was a military base where a Syrian army unit and a munitions factory are located. According to Iranian and Syrian reports, Syrian missiles intercepted Israeli surface-to-surface missiles, which were fired from the area of Tel Fares in the Golan Heights. At the same time, Israeli planes attacked targets in Syria with air-to-surface missiles from Lebanese airspace.

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The Iranian reports are making an effort to frame the assault as an incident that doesn’t warrant a main headline and most particularly if it has nothing to do with Iran. If Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman states publicly that there are no Iranian forces in Syria, why should Iran deny it?

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According to reports in Syria, the assault was near the city of Al Kiswah, south of Damascus. If this is true, this is a Syrian base where Hezbollah activists and other Iranian-backed forces are stationed. The lack of an official Iranian response so far, even one that makes clear its commitment to protect Syria, could attest to the fact that at this point Tehran doesn’t want the assault to become a strategic test that could lead to a direct clash with Israel.

The site of a reported Iranian military compound in Al-Kiswa, Syria, January, 2017.
Airbus, McKenzie Intelligence Services via BBC

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As opposed to Lieberman’s statements, the Iranian opposition reported in detail on the location of the Iranian bases in Syria, the deployment of Iranian forces and its proxies in that country. According to the opposition, those forces number about 70,000, and include members of the Revolutionary Guard, Afghans recruits operating as a militia (Al Fatemiyoun), Hezbollah fighters and other foreign operatives. Iran’s military investment in Syria, even before the outbreak of the crisis in 2011, makes clear that Tehran does not intend to give up the strategic opportunity that has crossed its path and that it intends to directly strengthen its position in Syria, not only through Assad’s regime.

Iran has short-term and long-term goals in Syria. In the short term, the duration of which depends on the attainment of a political solution in Syria, it intends to continue its military hold over the country, on the pretext that it is part of the forces supervising security in the region. In this, Iran says, its status can be no different than that of Turkey or Russia.

Iran, as opposed to Turkey or the United States, is legitimately present in Syria, having been “invited” by the regime to assist in its defense. As long as this invitation holds, Iran will be considered a legitimate presence there. This position was bolstered on Saturday during a conference in Rome under the title, “Mediterranean Dialogues,” where Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called on countries that were not invited into Syria to leave it. His remarks were directed at the United States. The Iranians and the Russians, on the other hand, are invited to stay.

In the long term, Iran is a partner to the diplomatic process led by Russia and agreements on the security zones. Any solution submitted to the regime, opposition figures and rebels will have to be approved by Iran. This is the first time since the Islamic revolution in which Iran is a partner to international diplomatic moves intended to resolve conflicts in the Middle East – a status it won after it signed the nuclear accord.

Iran can also contribute significantly to resolving the war in Yemen and influence Iraq’s foreign policy. Thus it may be assumed that it will prefer its new strategic status and not put it at risk by a direct clash with Israel, as long as it can show that the attacks in Syria do not harm Iranian forces or installations. This status also strengthens it vis a vis its rival, Saudi Arabia, whose attempts to resolve regional crisis have not borne fruit. Saudi Arabia is not an active partner in arrangements in Syria, the end of the war in Yemen which it initiated is not on the horizon, and neither has the crisis it sparks in Lebanon fared well for the kingdom.

But Iran is not the only country pondering issues of responses. Russia has already made clear to Israel what the red lines are beyond which Israel will not enjoy military freedom of action in Syria. If the reports are true, Russia might consider the latest attack as crossing those lines, since its proximity to Damascus and a strike against a Syrian military base could be interpreted as an expansion of the Israeli conflict front. If it once seemed that Russia turned a blind eye to assaults on weapons convoys intended for Hezbollah or an Israeli response against Syrian targets that had fired in the direction of Israel, Russia might now go as far as to threaten air action to reduce Israel’s freedom of action. It might do this in the same way it threatened action against American or Turkish aircraft operating in Syria without coordinating with Russia. These days, Russia is preoccupied with completion of the diplomatic process and has even stated that the military phase in Syria is over. Another round of talks is expected in Astana, Kazakhstan toward the end of this month, and a summit will subsequently be called in Geneva. Russia, which has been able to establish partial cease-fires throughout Syria,  and is leading to a general cease-fire, doesn’t need a new front between Syria and Israel.