The military escalation between Israel, Iran & Syria has reached a new dangerous level that risks dragging the region into another protracted conflict. Throughout the Syrian civil war, Israel has carried out air strikes on multiple positions in Syria in order to prevent the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah. Of late, an Israeli F16 was shot down by Syria after destroying a “mobile trailer” that is alleged to have launched an Iranian drone into Israel’s airspace.
The Middle East Conflict
Israel’s political establishment has laid out in plain terms that Iranian activity in Syria which seeks to undermine Tel Aviv’s security, is equivalent to “yellow” and “red cards”. So far Iran has stood resolute in Syria and Iraq in spite of the U.S. and Israel’s opposition to Tehran’s recent aggressive military policy in the Middle East.
However, what would be the implications of Iranian capitulation to Israel’s military strikes in Syria that seek to deter Tehran’s resolve in the region?
Firstly, as the Syrian civil war comes to a close, Iran has the opportunity to play a current and future role in Assad’s national security apparatus in which it can establish itself as a legitimate regional security partner. Should Iran turn course and limit its role in Syria to ease Israel’s fears of being encircled by Iran and its proxies, Tehran will lose its credibility as a determined regional power that can support its allies during political and military confrontation with the West & Israel. This is particularly crucial for Iran as its regional foes have chosen to sit on the sidelines in terms of direct military action against Iran in Syria. Such an opportunity to cement influence in Syria that has gone unopposed militarily by Iran’s Arab neighbours may not arise again for some time.
Furthermore, it would appear that President Assad is not going to be removed from power anytime soon. Whilst Assad welcomes Russia’s presence, he (Assad) needs Iran as a partner to provide regional legitimacy, particularly in the Muslim world. Abandonment of Syria or any significant downscale of support would thus be a wasted opportunity for Tehran. The Iranian backed “Shia crescent” that King Abdullah II of Jordan warned of back in 2004 would thus become fragmented, spelling the retreat of Tehran’s expansion. A move that would set Iran back significantly.
Moreover, capitulation to Israel’s policy would have repercussions for Hezbollah and Iran’s ability to embolden its ally. Hezbollah is a vital proxy that has enabled Iran to keep regional pressure on Israel. As stated in the above, Israel has repeatedly conducted air strikes to thaw Iran’s attempts to transfer weapons to Hezbollah.
Abandoning arms shipments and support for Hezbollah would be a major blow to the common goal of enabling a Lebanese fighting force to withstand a near-inevitable conflict with Israel. In the past few years, Hezbollah has “issued massive threats” towards Israel with military action. Having accumulated vital battle experience in Syria, Hezbollah requires additional weapons to match its growing capabilities. Iran is aware that its ally requires increased military aid if Hezbollah is to become a formidable counter-force to Israel’s dominance in the region. If Tehran withdraws its open hands from Hezbollah it would fragment the ‘Shia crescent’ of influence even further than the above example and potentially allow the unbalanced equilibrium between Israeli defence force (IDF) & Hezbollah to grow in favour of the IDF. This scenario would prove to be unfavourable to Iran’s regional ambitions.
Overall, Netanyahu has doubled down on Israel’s policy by stating that “We will continue to strike at every attempt to strike at us … This has been our policy and it will remain our policy.” We are yet to see how Iran will react to future Israeli air campaigns in Syria. Having considered how much is riding on Iran in the region, it is unlikely that Tehran will back down from Israeli threats or political pressure to significantly reduce its activities in the region.
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