The threat that Iran will choose to initiate a devastating war in the Middle East, from its perch in Syria, continues to rise.
The regime’s reconquest of southwestern Syria, along the borders with Jordan and Israel, in recent weeks has been accompanied by repeated penetration of Israeli territory by projectiles from Syria.
Last Tuesday, Israel shot down a Syrian Air Force Sukhoi 22 that crossed into its territory. Last Wednesday, so-called Islamic State (ISIS) forces in southern Syria shot two missiles into Israel that fell into the Sea of Galilee just a few dozen yards from beachgoers. The Israeli navy located one of the missiles, but is still looking for the other one, which reportedly failed to detonate.
Assad owes his survival to two outside powers: Iran and Russia. Iran has directed Assad’s war effort, including his mass killing from the outset of the war in 2011. Through its Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Hezbollah and Shiite militia proxies, Iran supplied the ground forces to secure Assad’s control of territory. Assad needed these forces because over the years, at least half of his armed forces deserted their posts. Today, Assad still lacks the manpower to hold the territories he is reclaiming. Iranian-controlled forces still comprise the bulwark of the “Syrian regime forces.”
As Iran supplied Assad with his army, Russia has served as his air force since 2015. Had Russian President Vladimir Putin not sent his bombers to Syria, Assad and his Iranian controllers would probably have lost the war. In exchange for saving him, Assad gave Putin the Khmeimim air base and the Tartus naval base.
This outcome is deeply problematic for the U.S. and for Israel. Russia’s position in Syria has made it both the most powerful actor in Syria and a major power broker in the Middle East as a whole. So long as U.S. and Russian positions are unaligned, particularly in relation to Iran, Russia’s empowerment comes at America’s expense.
Israel’s primary interest in the war has from the outset was to prevent Iran from transferring precision weapons to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon through Syria. Since it became clear that the Iranian-controlled Assad regime would defeat its opponents, Israel’s goal has been to end the Iranian presence in Syria altogether.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has worked avidly to forge an operational partnership with Putin in the hopes of diminishing Russia’s commitment to Iran generally, and to Iran’s control over the Syrian regime more specifically. To Putin’s credit, he has opted to avoid confrontation with Israel and to accept Israel’s right to attack his Iranian partners. But his strategic ties to Iran remain significant and present a major challenge to Israel and the U.S.
This is the case because Iran’s position in Syria poses a massive threat to Israel. Unlike the Syrian regime, which avoided direct conflict with Israel after Israel destroyed its air force in 1982, Iran is interested in a war with Israel.
Iran’s Hezbollah proxy army has exerted effective control over Lebanon since 2008. Hezbollah has 150,000 missiles pointing at Israel. Its forces have now gained massive combat experience through their participation in the war in Syria. Hezbollah also has effective control over the U.S.-armed and trained Lebanese Armed Forced, (LAF).
Iran’s control over the Syrian ground forces increases the prospect of war not only against Israel, but against U.S. forces in the Middle East and against Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s threats against oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and the Bab el Mandab at the mouth of the Red Sea – the two sea lanes that control all seabound oil shipments from the Middle East — cannot be seen in isolation from its presence in Syria. There is a possibility that Iran may choose to begin a major war against the U.S. and its allies by attacking Israel from Syria and Lebanon. Add to that the fact that Iran controls the Hamas regime in Gaza as well, and we are looking at the prospect of a war breaking out along any one of these Iranian-controlled fronts, which could easily become a regionwide war.