Bracing for an Israel-Iran Confrontation in Syria

(American Interest) Ehud Yaari - Israel and Iran are on course for a collision in the near future. Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is determined to transform Syria into a platform for a future war against Israel. The past five years have already seen more than 120 Israeli Air Force strikes against weapons shipments to Hizbullah, Iranian attempts to instigate cross-border incidents along the Golan Heights, and Israeli targeting of arms-production facilities introduced by Iran. Despite harboring deep suspicions about the Sunni rebel groups conducting the uprising against Assad, Israel nevertheless yearned to see Assad's downfall. The removal of the Assad regime would deprive Iran of what Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has called "the golden ring in the chain of resistance" against Israel. The Iranian loss of Syria - following an investment of $20 billion to prop up the regime - could reduce a mighty Hizbullah proxy force to an isolated actor in Lebanon. Iran would thus be blocked from implementing its regional plan, based on surrounding Israel with Iranian allies and forging land corridors from its borders all the way west to the Mediterranean. Since August 2015, Iran has focused on its long-term campaign to deepen its offensive capabilities within Syrian territory. At least five Syrian air bases already accommodate Iranian units, along with their UAVs, missiles, and intelligence facilities. The number of Shi'a and other militiamen at Iran's disposal in Syria is steadily growing, and their training and equipment are improving. Contacts between Israel and Iran through a variety of Track II channels have failed to produce any prospect for near-term tacit understandings. The Iranians refuse to consider any restriction on their activities in Syria or toning down of their calls for the destruction of the "Zionist regime." Russian President Vladimir Putin has privately told Western interlocutors that he does not want Syria to become a "Persian colony" and that he has no interest in watching a war erupt between Iran and Israel. However, the Kremlin still requires the Iran-sponsored militias to complete the destruction of the remaining rebel bastions. Therefore, it may take time before Putin is willing to rein in his Iranian allies. Above all, to prevent an all-out Israel-Iran war, which could easily expand to Lebanon and Gaza, the U.S. must lend its support to a sustained Israeli campaign to destroy Iranian facilities in Syria and continuously raise the cost of the IRGC effort, to the point that both Tehran and Damascus will have to reconsider its viability. The writer is a Middle East commentator for Israel's Channel Two television and a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

2018-05-01 00:00:00

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