After airstrike in Syria, an Israeli proxy war with Iran looms

Jerusalem continues to thwart Tehran’s efforts to entrench itself in Syria, and analysts are predicting the ‘worst war the region has seen in decades’

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Iranian pro-government supporters burn the Israeli and US flags during a rally Mashhad in support of the regime after authorities declared the end of the recent protests, on January 4, 2018. (AFP Photo/Tasnim News/Nima Najafzadeh)
Iranian pro-government supporters burn the Israeli and US flags during a rally Mashhad in support of the regime after authorities declared the end of the recent protests, on January 4, 2018. (AFP Photo/Tasnim News/Nima Najafzadeh)

Following Israel’s alleged strike on Iranian targets in Syria, a military conflict between the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic appears increasingly likely, several analysts and officials estimated.

“When on a given day, the chance for [active military conflict with Iran] are about one percent, now it is about 10%,” former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak said Tuesday.

“The Iranians will probably respond to the strike attributed to Israel, even if not immediately,” reasoned Amos Yadlin, the head of the Institute for National Security Studies. “Iran will consider launching an official retaliation for the attacks on its soldiers this time in order to deter Israel from continuing to strike Iranian forces in Syria.”

If and when the Iranians decide to attack Israel, he added, they will not do so from their own territory. “The possible theaters for doing so are Syria, Lebanon, or anywhere else around the globe, and Iran may employ its characteristic use of terror proxies.”

Jonathan Schanzer, the senior vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also predicted a looming “showdown” between Israel and Iran on Syrian soil, going so far as anticipating the Middle East’s “worst war” in decades.

“With Iran’s long record of sponsoring terrorist groups that target Israel, coupled with regular calls for destruction of the state of Israel, this has been a long time coming,” Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst for the US government, wrote in Politico. “Iran’s Syrian and Lebanese proxies, who are armed to the teeth with up to 250,000 rockets, are preparing to battle the most advanced military in the Middle East. It promises to be the worst war the region has seen in decades.”

Citing the “tense situation,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday instructed his ministers not to publicly comment on the current security situation vis-à-vis Iran and Syria.

But in private conversations, Israeli officials, too, see an imminent “collision” with Iran as inevitable.

Israel has drawn red lines, declaring repeatedly that it will not allow Iran to entrench itself military in Syria. But since the Islamic Republic is determined to do just that, the reasoning goes, sooner or later the sides’ diametrically opposed interests will mount into a full-blown military conflict.

Iranian-Israeli tensions have long been simmering, mostly over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and its stated goal of wiping Israel off the map. But recent events in Syria suggest that the anticipated clash may possibly occur sooner rather than later.

Photo released by Iranian media reportedly show the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage Monday. (Iranian media)

On Monday, Israel allegedly launched an airstrike on a Syrian airbase that killed several people, including at least seven Iranian officials. While many observers initially believed the US had carried out the strike in response to the Assad regime’s alleged chemical attack on civilians in the Damascus suburb of Douma, Russia, Syria and Iran publicly blamed Israel.

Tehran, which usually remains mum about Israeli strikes harming its assets in Syria, acknowledged — through its semi-official media outlets — that Iranians were killed by Israel’s warplanes, and vowed revenge.

“The crimes will not remain unanswered,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, said Tuesday in Damascus.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Velayati’s visit in the Syrian capital this week is likely focused on how the two allied countries should respond to Israel’s attack, according to Shimon Shapira, an expert on Iran and Hezbollah at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Monday’s aerial attack struck an Iranian drone section of Syria’s T4 base, which was under exclusive Iranian command, he said. One of the seven Iranians killed during the strike held the rank of colonel.

“The allegations from Tehran and Moscow that Israel carried out the aerial bombing and caused serious damage to the Iranian target raises the likelihood of a deterioration in the military situation between Iran and Israel,” assessed Shapira, who served as military secretary to Netanyahu during his first term.

“Iran may increase its attempts to strike at Israel via the Golan Heights using Hezbollah and Shiite proxies from the ‘foreign legion’ that it established in Syria,” he went on. “Eventually, this deterioration may spill over beyond Syria and lead to Iranian and Hezbollah attempts to strike at Israeli and Jewish targets outside the region.”

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