Having tightened its grip on strategic areas of Syria, Iran now is willing and able to use these locations as staging areas for operations against Israel.
Although direct action against Israel is risky, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards may have calculated that the presence of Russian military personnel at the Tiyas air base and elsewhere in close proximity to Iranian personnel would deter an Israeli counterattack.
Iran’s intentions were foreshadowed last month, when a senior Iranian official visited the Lebanese side of Lebanon’s border with Israel and made provocative comments about the liberation of Jerusalem.
Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi— the hardline cleric who lost Iran’s presidential election last year but might still be in line to become the next supreme leader—was escorted within a United Nations buffer zone by Hezbollah officials who were uniformed and armed. This incident, which violated UN Security Council resolutions that established a demilitarized zone in Lebanon, prompted Israel to warn the Security Council that Iran was subverting the UN’s peacekeeping role in Lebanon and destabilizing the region.
Iran has replicated its proxy strategy of using Hezbollah in Lebanon, by creating a wide array of Shia militia groups directed by the Quds Force, the elite special forces of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. This foreign legion of militias recruited from pro-Iranian Iraqis, Afghans and Pakistanis has advanced closer to the Israeli border.
Hezbollah has almost thirty thousand fighters—up to a third of them now deployed in Syria to prop up the Assad regime. The terrorist group is thought to have amassed an arsenal of up to 150,000 rockets, which it has dispersed amid civilian buildings and underground bunkers covertly built in Lebanon. Iran has provided the bulk of these weapons, including increasingly accurate longer-range missiles capable of targeting most of Israel.
Perhaps motivated by steady losses of arms and equipment due to Israeli air strikes, Iran reportedly is building at least two weapons factories in Lebanon to assemble advanced missiles, anti-tank weapons and UAVs. Israel is likely to target these facilities in future rounds of fighting with Iran and Hezbollah.
The Trump administration should publicly warn Russia and Iran that the United States will respond forcefully to future threats in Syria and strongly support Israeli military efforts to blunt threats emanating from Syria. If Moscow is not willing or able to restrain Iran in Syria, it must share the responsibility—and bear consequences—for Iran’s destabilizing actions in Syria.