Airstrikes are a setback, but Iran fully intends to cement its presence in Syria
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Analysis

Airstrikes are a setback, but Iran fully intends to cement its presence in Syria

Israel allegedly prevented an Iranian missile attack on the north late Tuesday, but Iran has a broad strategic goal of expanding its empire and will not be easily deterred

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Israeli Merkava Mark IV tanks take positions near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights on May 9, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JALAA MAREY)
Israeli Merkava Mark IV tanks take positions near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights on May 9, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / JALAA MAREY)

It would be premature to celebrate what appears to have been Israel’s success in thwarting Iran’s threatened “revenge attack” on northern Israel from Syria. The Iranian missile strike intended for Tuesday night may have been prevented by means of the raid on the Kisweh base, but presumably the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps is not done yet.

According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 15 people were killed in the nighttime strike at Kisweh, of whom eight were Iranians. Which means the Iranian motivation for revenge has not dimmed; quite the reverse.

The head of the IRGC’s Al Quds Brigades, Qassam Soleimani, will try again via his various proxies in Syria to settle accounts with Israel, whether via missiles or an attack on IDF troops in the Golan like the one in January 2015.

Furthermore, keep in mind that Iran’s central goal in Syria is not a revenge attack on Israel, but rather the establishment of a permanent military presence. Iran has no intention of halting that effort, no matter how many attacks Israel allegedly carries out. The Persian empire is taking shape before our very eyes between Tehran and the Mediterranean. Any effort to strike at Israel is a marginal consideration when looked at in the context of that years-long process.

Here’s how the Iranians may view the ongoing activities attributed to Israel in Syria: Israel will not agree to the transfer of “game-changing” weaponry to Syria for the use of Hezbollah or the IRGC — neither long-range Fateh-110 missiles nor attack drones entering Israel and impinging on its absolute air supremacy. Also on Israel’s red line list: an Iranian or Shiite/Hezbollah militia presence close to the Golan Heights border, and an Iranian air force presence.

In other words, the Iranians will have recognized that Israel’s concern is focused on an Iranian military presence. But Iran’s ambitions in Syria are not solely military in nature. Iran wants economic and political influence in an area where its main rival is Saudi Arabia. And it is making gains. While Riyadh sustains political defeats (cf the Lebanese parliamentary elections) and military defeats (cf Yemen), Iran is deepening its hold.

The Shiite crescent that Jordan’s King Abdullah began warning of a decade ago is now becoming a real monster. Iran wields growing influence in a corridor from Tehran to the sea, if not full control. Tehran will continue to win tenders to operate cellular companies, to mine phosphates, and maybe even to (indirectly) operate a naval port.

Iran attempted last year to lease land near Tartus for an Iranian port, but was turned down by Damascus, which was under intense Russian pressure. But the Iranian regime believes that anything that doesn’t work via formal channels can always be accomplished through the back door. It now plans to lease the land and operate a Mediterranean port via a private company unconnected — at least not visibly — to the Iranian government.

Tuesday night’s preventative action allegedly by Israel, and evidence of the immense capabilities of Israeli intelligence allegedly on display, may prompt Tehran’s leaders to think more carefully about their threatened retaliation — “revenge,” it is worth stressing, for an alleged Israeli raid on the T-4 air base from which Iran launched an attack drone into Israel three months ago.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards al-Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani (YouTube screenshot)

Soleimani and his colleagues will have woken up on Wednesday morning with considerable unease and some pointed questions about the vulnerability of their forces in Syria to Israeli intelligence. That could lead to a change in tactics.

But make no mistake. Nothing that Iran has seen thus far, and that includes the impressive display of alleged Israeli military and intelligence capabilities inherent in the airstrikes against its forces, will alter its strategic goal of expanding its sphere of influence via an economic, political and military expansion into Syria. Iran intends to be there for the long term.

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