Last Thursday, massive explosions rocked the Syrian town of Masyaf, as precision guided missiles hit their targets. According to the Washington Post, this was in fact an incursion by Israeli fighter jets against a site that had been producing chemical weapons and missiles for the Syrian government and its allies.
Damascus has already declared that there will be “dangerous repercussions.”
Such incursions are not new. Ever since the Syrian civil war started back in 2011, Israel has been using its powerful air force to hit targets of opportunity inside the war-torn country. Such strikes were intended to destroy potential threats to the state of Israel, like truckloads of anti-aircraft missiles heading for Lebanon, for example.
Meanwhile, the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus seems poised to win the civil war, as the Islamic State fades away, and, in the north, the conflict between the Turks and the Kurds escalates. A victory of the regime would be a serious blow to the Israeli defense strategy, and there is a good reason for that. In the aftermath of such an event, Iran would solidify its position in the Levant, right on Israel’s northern flank.
Given Iran’s position regarding the existence of the state of Israel itself, such a situation is seen as untenable by Tel Aviv.
In a wider geostrategic sense, Iran’s main enemy is Saudi Arabia. Although this feud can be understood as being fed by the divide between the Shia and the Sunni elements of the Islamic faith, the reality in the terrain is more complicated than that.
At the same time, Tehran still adheres to the ideologies fostered after the 1979 revolution, perceiving Israel as an agent of the U.S., which has usurped Islamic lands and needs to be destroyed for that.
From an anthropological standpoint, such conceptions are a great tool to rile up the masses, and one cannot really discount the possibility of the leaders themselves believing in the need to fulfill them. Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank did little to diminish the Islamic hatred for the Jewish state.
Syria’s case is an interesting one, too. During the Cold War, Damascus aligned itself with other Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq in the conflict against Israel. During the Six-Day War, in 1967, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel when the latter obliterated the Arab armies.
That region has been a point of contention ever since, and during the current civil war, Israeli soldiers occasionally exchanged fire with Syrian troops and rebel fighters.
The Hezbollah, created in Lebanon in 1985, follows the same ideology as Iran, and intends to destroy Israel. It should come as no surprise that the organization is an Iranian creation. This organization has been fighting alongside Assad’s troops against the Syrian rebels, and one shouldn’t underestimate its importance in the wider picture.
Both Syria and Lebanon have something that Iran desires greatly: a shore in the Mediterranean. Some of the most important trade routes in the world pass through this sea. Furthermore, there are important pipelines in this region, something of importance for countries that export oil and natural gas, as is the case of Iran.
Additionally, the control of the Levant would allow Tehran to flank Saudi Arabia by the north. At the same time, Iran is also supporting the Houthis in Yemen in their war against Riyadh. Success on these two fronts would allow an encirclement of Saudi Arabia and give Iran a great deal of control over the region.
This means that for years, Iranian troops, especially the Revolutionary Guard, were deeply involved in the fighting. According to a report from NATO, Tehran also trained and armed Shia-aligned militias, even going as far as bringing in combatants from places like Pakistan and Afghanistan to fight against the predominantly Sunni rebels (including the Islamic State).
But now that Damascus seems to be winning the conflict, due in great part to all the help it received from its allies, Iran finds itself with the opportunity of capitalizing on the gains.
Given this reality, analysts are now trying to predict what may happen next. A conflict with the Hezbollah, basically acting as a proxy for Iran while pursuing its own interests, seems plausible.
But as Newsweek speculates, the group may not be as prepared to fight as it boasts. Although now counting with scores of experienced fighters and armed with several kinds of new weapons, including 120,000 rockets, Hezbollah is scattered across the region. Its combatants can be found anywhere from Lebanon itself, to Iraq, meaning that the organization is spread out thin.
Any concerted effort against an enemy as powerful as Israel will certainly only be possible after some reorganization. However, the group proved resourceful and extremely hard to defeat in the past. Maybe such a conflict could end in a stalemate, no different from previous engagements.
Interestingly enough, this feud with Tehran has also brought Tel Aviv closer to old enemies like Saudi Arabia, or even Egypt, as discussed by Bloomberg.
This block is supported by the U.S., which have been continuously embroiled in the region since 2003. During the Obama administration, an agreement with Iran seemed to have been possible, even regarding the controversial issue of the Iranian nuclear program, but such advances seem to have cooled down even before President Trump got elected.
This attempts at befriending Iran angered Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, President Trump’s administration seems to be warming up to Tel Aviv, which is inciting a different response from its leaders. If Israel does have more support than during the previous administration, then it could theoretically pull more weight in the geopolitical arena.
In the recent past, Israel has declared to be ready to strike Iranian nuclear installations, and its new weapons systems, like the F-35 stealth fighter, seem to be tailored for such strategies. Thus, this week’s attack on the Syrian installations serves as a warning about what Tel Aviv is willing to do to defend itself should it feel threatened, directly or indirectly.
This may be an important stance to make as the war in the Levant changes into something new.
[Featured Image by Ariel Schalit/AP Images]