An Iran-Israel Shadow War In Gulf

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An Iran-Israel Shadow War In Gulf
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Sumera B Reshi

The exchange of missiles and air attacks between Iranian forces in Syria and Israel on May 9 was the most vicious and blatant exchange so far between the two archrival rivals. The cross-border exchanges — the most serious assaults from each side in their run-in over Iran’s presence in Syria — took place a little more than a day after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Israel’s defence minister claimed that Israeli warplanes had destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria after Iran launched 20 rockets at Israeli-held territory, none reaching their targets. Iran’s forces in Syria seem to have suffered a severe blow, thus embittered already twisted relations between Iran & Israel, it seems like this front is -now hotting up.

In this ethereal conflict, Iran is making persistent efforts to consolidate its military foothold in Syria which it gained by posing as a saviour along with Russia and proxy Shiite militias in Syria into a permanent presence.  Both Iran and Israel can’t see each other eye to eye. Their bitterness is exhibited by the war of words followed by the worst face-off to date in May this year.

Israel fired dozens of missiles on Iranian positions in Syria on May 10, hours after the Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights, it claimed were targeted by Iranian rockets. Israeli strikes have grown fiercer since, killing at least 13 Iranian nationals in Syria. Israel considers Iran to be its most bitter enemy, citing Tehran’s hostile rhetoric, support for militant groups and development of long-range missiles.

This succinct yet intense conflict raised fears that the region may be sliding into an unprecedented direct confrontation between Tehran & Jerusalem.  Israel has always viewed Iranian influence in Syria as a threat. It has doubts with regard to Iran’s military presence inside Syria as well as that of the Iranian backed militia. There are some 80,000 Shiite militia in Syria under the control of Tehran which also includes forces of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraqi as well as Afghan fighters according to the Israeli government.

The huge presence of fighters in Syria which Tehran and its allies justify is because they want to secure a corridor from Iran to Lebanon through Syria and Iraq. But this is the concern for Israel as the corridor will allow Iran more easy access to Lebanon and Hezbollah, which is a powerful Shiite guerilla force in the Middle East and a sore in the eyes of Israel.

Since Iran and Israel have confronted each other in the past, but the latest strike was the most direct and brazen one. Iran has vowed the attacks won’t go unpunished but its military capabilities are limited. It also needs the goodwill of the international community as it struggles to save the 2015 nuclear deal, which lifted crippling sanctions and in response Israel has said it is prepared to keep fighting.

“If there is rain on our side, there will be a flood on their side,” said Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

Iran hit on Israeli positions soon after President Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, raising speculations that Iran no longer could be forced to bear Israeli assault since the US already scraped the deal. However, Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal encouraged Israel as well as from the very beginning, Israel criticized the Iran nuclear deal.

Political arena in Syria has witnessed many changes in 2018 and it seems the war tactics in Syria have modified after Netanyahu – Putin meeting and even after Israel hit Iranian posts in Syria, Russia maintained a calm. Russia allowed Israel to act against Iran’s military assets in Syria.

It appears that Russian calculus may have changed now. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Iran nuclear accord emboldened Netanyahu to pursue his confrontation with Iran.

In the past when Israel attacked Iran’s military in Syria, Russia used to criticize Israel, however, instead of condemning the air strikes this time, Russia called both Iran and Israel to resolve the differences diplomatically rather than siding with Iran. Since 2011, Russia and Iran have been allies in Syrian civil war, both defending President Bashar al-Assad.

But as the war appears to be slowing down, political pundits opine that the goals of Russia and Iran are deviating and digressing. Now Russia prefers a strong & a secular central government in Syria, on the contrary, Iran favors a weaker government that would allow Iran-backed militias a free access.

Since 2011 Israel has directed a number of covert strikes on Iran and its allies in Syria and Iran also wanted to retaliate but was waiting for Trumps’ decision on nuclear accord. Thus far, Iran has responded in a measured manner, from Syrian territory, and in accordance with Israeli estimates.

Analysts believe that despite the fact that Iran has much to lose if the conflict continues, it appears determined to preserve the nuclear deal even with renewed US sanctions. Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group said,

  “We see now that Netanyahu feels that Iran’s capacities in Syria are vulnerable, that he can target them, that Iran’s capacities to strike back are weakened — he took out some of these capacities, probably less than he claims — and that Iran has no significant way to react without risking itself”

Certainly, Iran can’t gain from further escalation with Israel this time and the US’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has made it mandatory for Iran to portray itself as a responsible international player who is committed to international agreements.  Furthermore, its tools are limited and somewhat unsophisticated compared to Israel. Additionally, Iran doesn’t possess conventional surface-to-surface missiles which could reach Israel from Iranian territory.

Besides, a limited know-how, it is unlikely for Iran to launch such an attack and risk a substantial retaliation from Israel. Iran could exhibit its muscle power by unleashing its intelligence services and proxy networks against Israel but such an approach may prove detrimental for Iran with regard to the significant international political gains it has achieved so far, nor can Iran play into the hands of the anti-Iranian lobby in the international and regional arenas’.

From the very beginning, Iran has been a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad. Syria, as well as Iran, consider themselves as part of the “Axis of Resistance” (an alliance opposed to the US and Israeli influence in the Middle East) — a longstanding alliance between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, among others. Iran is also seeking to establish a balance of power — including deterrence — with other regional and international actors with interests in Syria.

Iran has offered military assistance, technology and equipment to Assad. Iran has its own agenda in Syria but it sees Israeli strikes in Syria as a violation of international law and Syrian sovereignty.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia also views Iran just as the Israelis do, a major threat to the region, the Middle East.  For now, Egypt is focused on its own domestic issues and the security of the Sinai Peninsula. In other words, two key regional players who formerly had a tendency, in Israel’s eyes, to place too much focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are looking elsewhere now.

Iran and Israel were not like this always. Nevertheless, the animosity and covert hostilities between the two countries are relatively new. Israel and many Arab states had hostile relations with each other but that wasn’t the case with Iran. In the past Iran and Israel shared a close and warm relationship before Iranian Revolution.

Israel’s national security thinkers viewed Iran as a part of “periphery doctrine”, in which Israel allied itself with non-Arab actors in the Middle East, to counterbalance its dramatic inferiority in numbers and, then, in wealth, compared to the Arab countries that surrounded it. Even now, Israeli’s have appreciation for the Iranian people and a candid desire for better relations between the people of the two countries.

On the other hand, Iran considers Israel as the ‘Little Satan’ and the US as the ‘Great Satan’. The relations between Israel and Iran soured through Iran’s proxy in Lebanon using Hezbollah forces against Israeli and even non-Israeli Jewish targets.

Moreover, Iran assisted Palestinian militant groups, mostly to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) to smaller splinter Islamist groups and lesser ones like Hamas. But the strongest and significant Iran sponsored group is undoubtedly Hezbollah, established in 1982. This militant group not only fought against Israel but was also directly involved in the bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983.

Undeniably, Hezbollah has been involved in the sectarian Syrian civil war and has supported Assad regime. While doing so, Hezbollah sustained significant casualties and greatly diminishing its standing among ordinary and especially Sunni – Arab as well as among most of the Lebanese people. This sacrifice provides ample evidence to its respect towards Iran. Although Hezbollah is involved in Syrian civil war, at this juncture, the group is in no position to strike a conflict with Israel.

In the short term, the Hezbollah and Iranian involvement in Syria has helped bolster Assad regime and secure Syrian conduit of material from Iran to Hezbollah.  Even though Israel & Hezbollah have maintained artificial silence since 2006, yet the group remains a major concern for Israel. Israel views Hezbollah as a persistent threat both on its own, and in any possible future confrontation between Israel and Iran.

Not only Syria but Israel’s specific concern is Iran’s involvement with militant Palestinian groups which have wreak havoc on both Israeli and Palestinians and have consistently undermined the Isreali-Palestinian peace process. PIJ particularly has served as Iranian subsidiary carrying out deadly attacks at Iran’s command.

 However, Hamas’s relationship with Iran is more complex. Hamas being a political & militant Palestinian group is also an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist organization. Like PIJ, Hamas have limits to align with Iran because of the rift between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states in the Middle East.

Keeping the widespread animosity between Sunni Islamists across the Middle East and the Iranian-backed Syrian regime in view, Hamas had to leave Damascus. This equation also damaged the relation between Iran and Hamas. Iran and Syria have been important suppliers of weapons for militants in the Gaza Strip, including Hamas.

Syrian-produced M-302 rockets have been used against Israeli civilians in the current round of fighting. The same types of rockets were found on the KLOS C arms ship, which the Israeli navy intercepted before it could reach Gaza.

Actually, Israel doesn’t bother much about Iran. Its only grave concern is Iran’s policies. Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia, is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program and with Iran’s activities outside its borders, but unlike Saudi Arabi, Isreal is least concerned about the Sunni – Shiite divide. In real terms, Isreal has deliberately avoided siding with either of the warring factions in Syria. Isreal’s focus is thus to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah.

Israel’s tough stance reflects its insistence that it won’t allow Iran to turn Syria into a forward operating base for it and its proxies to attack Israel. This situation is frightening. A war game of many has been shrunk to more specific one between Israel – Iran.

War game in Syria was previously a shadow conflict inside Syria between Israel and Iran is now threatening to explode into all-out war between the two bitter Middle East foes.

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