The Iran-Israel Quasi-War in Syria

Although Israel’s behavior may seem ill-calculated, the rationale behind its recent attacks in Syria is understandable and may not encourage a direct Iranian retaliation.

Since the terror attacks of October 7, which led to the massacre of over 1,100 Israeli citizens, the general assumption was that Israel, for the foreseeable future, would focus its attention on Gaza. By diverting its attention from the strip to Iran, Syria, and Lebanon, Israel enabled Hamas to conduct such an operation in the first place. Although Israel’s army is conducting a full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, its military has not overlooked other hostile fronts. Since the beginning of the conflict with Hamas, Israel has engaged in exchanges with Hezbollah and targeted Iran-backed positions in Syria. While tensions with Hezbollah have relatively de-escalated, it appears that Israel has intensified its attacks in Syria against Iran.

On March 29, Israel conducted one of its deadliest attacks in Syria, striking a facility in southern Aleppo, culminating in the death of forty individuals. Three days later, in an unorthodox move, Israel bombed the Iranian embassy in Damascus, killing seven military officers, including three senior commanders, according to the Iranian government.

The question then arises as to why Israel would risk opening a new front while its military campaign in Gaza is far from concluded. Although this behavior may seem ill-calculated, Israel’s rationale is quite understandable for various reasons.

First, it’s essential to recognize that one of the main reasons Israel was caught off guard by the Hamas attacks was that its attention was diverted to other fronts. Subsequently, Israeli concerns that the war in Gaza might provide Iran and its wide range of proxies with an opportunity to strengthen their presence in Syria are off the mark. Shortly after the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, many sources indicated that Iran was planning to enhance Syria’s aerial defense by deploying the Khordad-15, an advanced medium-to-high-altitude air defense missile system. This system, somewhat resembling the U.S. military’s Patriot system, can engage up to six fighter-jet-sized targets simultaneously from a range of 120 kilometers. Such developments could be quite alarming for Israel, as at the same time, reports suggested that Russia’s Wagner PMC was planning to deliver the Pantsir, a point-defense system, to Hezbollah. Combining the Khordad-15 and Pantsir defense systems could pose severe challenges to Israel’s Air Force.

Therefore, there is a significant chance that Israel’s attacks are meant to prevent the buildup of Iranian military installations in Syria from reaching a point of no return. Especially since the Russo-Ukrainian War has turned into an opportunity for Iran to expand its influence in Syria, as Russia has been rapidly redeploying its troops from Syria to the front in Ukraine, creating a vacuum that Iran and Hezbollah have been trying to fill by deploying additional troops.

Second, similar to concerns about the buildup in Syria, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) should be worried about the expansion of military deliveries from Iran to Hezbollah. According to Israeli officials, since the onset of the Israel-Hamas conflict, Iran has increased its efforts to deliver air defense systems, such as Shahed-101 and Shahed-136 drones, and mini-Ababil missiles to Hezbollah. This accusation cannot be easily ignored. On February 14, the Tehran-based, IRGC-affiliated Tasnim News reported that Hezbollah had been equipped with Iran’s advanced anti-tank Almas missiles. Given that Syria, as Iran’s land bridge to Lebanon, is the main conduit for arms deliveries to Hezbollah, by increasing military pressure on Iran in Syria, the IDF might aim to disrupt these arms deliveries to Hezbollah.

To understand the depth of Israel’s concern over the further arming of Hezbollah, one must consider the impact of the attacks by Hamas, which is much weaker than Hezbollah. After witnessing the devastation inflicted on southern settlements, Israeli residents in the north of the country, near the border with Lebanon, have evacuated by the thousands. This mass departure has turned places like Kiryat Shmona into virtual ghost towns. This development has imposed an extreme level of both political and financial pressure on Israel, leaving the IDF with no choice but to take extreme preventive measures, including attacking Iran and Hezbollah. These actions signal to domestic and foreign audiences that the north has not been left unprotected, ensuring that there is still a vigilant presence and oversight in the area.

The last reason behind the intensifying military campaign against Iran could be Israel’s banking on the probability of Iran’s lack of retaliatory response. Tehran, adhering to its doctrine of “Strategic Patience,” which tolerates short-term hardship for long-term victory, has not yet responded to Jerusalem’s attacks. As noted by Iran’s former minister of foreign affairs, Javad Zarif, Israel has bombed Iran’s positions in Syria more than 200 times, which were left without an Iranian response.

First, securing Assad’s rule in Syria cost Iran between $20-$30 billion and more than 2,000 troops. Iran is well aware that war with Israel could jeopardize this costly victory, especially since many Israeli politicians have threatened that in the event of a war with Iran or Hezbollah, the IDF would target Assad himself.

Second, Iran might be concerned that a major escalation with Israel would alter the dynamics of the war in Gaza, which currently favors Iran. While the war in Gaza is causing an unbearable level of civilian suffering, Hamas’s military capability continues to function, as the militia in January retained two-thirds of its capacity from before the war. Additionally, the core leadership team of Hamas, including Yahya Sinwar and Mohammad Deif, and their Doha-based team, appears to remain functional. Meanwhile, the growing civilian casualties are placing significant international pressure on Israel, illustrated by the United States’s unorthodox decision not to veto the UN Security Council resolution demanding peace. This could encourage Iran and its “Axis of Resistance” to believe that the increasing pressure on Israel might force the IDF to halt its operations without achieving its objective of dismantling Hamas. The Axis of Resistance might perceive this scenario as a major victory. In this context, to secure such a win, Iran might avoid escalating tensions with Israel, as further escalation could potentially shift the situation in Israel’s favor.

However, one might argue that while Tehran appears to adhere to its strategy of strategic patience, the revolutionary government has another concern: securing its domestic credibility, which the increasing number of Israeli attacks could erode. In this context, Iran may employ indirect retaliatory measures by having its proxies target Israeli embassies and personnel across the world, conducting cyber-attacks, attacking Israeli commercial ships in the Red Sea, and so forth. However, in choosing any of these options, Tehran must carefully consider Israel’s response and how to respond, presenting a dilemma whose outcome will only be revealed in time.

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