News Analysis

Start of a new war of attrition between Israel and Iran?

TEL AVIV - Israel's alleged attack of an Iranian outpost in Syria on Saturday (Dec 2) could kick off a new confrontation between Tel Aviv and Teheran. It also indicates that tensions between Israel and Russia are on the rise.

The Syrians' almost seven year-old civil war may be nearing its end, but that does not mean peace for the Levant. Quite to the opposite: a new battle has begun, as foreign powers fight over the spoils of the bloodiest conflict of the 21st Century. On one side, Russia and Iran, the official backers of Syria's President Bashar al Assad, have invested in his regime. Now they reap the fruits of victory.

Russia wants to enlarge its only port in the Mediterranean in Tartus, Syria, and increase its military presence on the southern flank of Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation). Moscow has also signed contracts with Syria's President Assad for for economic cooperation.

Iran has come closer to fulfilling its dream of a land corridor to the Mediterranean. It has stated that it aims to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, menacingly close to its arch-enemy Israel.

No surprise these prospects have the US and Israel extremely worried. They are determined to pre-empt such a scenario at any cost.

Now, their war of words may have turned into military intervention.

According to official Syrian media, Israeli forces attacked a military compound in al Kiswah, south of Damascus, early on Saturday morning. According to a report by BBC, that base was being remodelled to serve as a future hub for ground troops of Iran's revolutionary guards. Independent sources confirmed this to The Straits Times.

 

Israel's attack thus served as a warning message with two intended recipients: Iran, and Israel's supposed ally Russia.

That may come as a surprise. In public, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has bragged about his excellent relationship with Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Both established a unique deconfliction mechanism to prevent a potential clash or accident between Israel's air force and Russian troops stationed in Syria. That has so far granted Israel a large degree of freedom of action in Syria's skies to safeguard its vital security interests.

According to its air force chief, Israel has attacked targets in Syria more than a hundred times since the outbreak of the civil war, mostly to destroy arms shipments to Lebanon. They were destined for Hezbollah, a Shiite militia bent on destroy Israel that has become Iran's most powerful foreign policy tool. Moscow has declined to comment on almost all of these attacks - taciturn consent and recognition of Israel's security needs.

Now, however, that Russian-Israeli entente seems to have reached an impasse over Iran. Mr Putin has refused to support Israel's request to limit Teheran's military presence in Syria.

As early as a year ago, Mr Netanyahu had warned that Iran was replacing the terror organisation ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) there. That warning has come true.

According to the Iranian opposition, Iran commands more than 70,000 fighters in Syria: hundreds of its own soldiers, around 7,000 Hezbollah fighters, thousands of Afghans recruits in the Al Fatemiyoun milita, as well as volunteers from Iraq and Pakistan.

Mr Netanyahu visited Putin repeatedly, warning him only last August in Sochi that Iran "no longer attempts to create a terror front in Syria but rather (is) establishing a military force".

"A naval Iranian facility and/or other military infrastructures, air force etc, these are things we cannot accept," he warned, adding that "when we intend to do something - we do it".

That failed to impress Mr Putin, nor has it spurred Israel's most important ally, the US, into action.

When Moscow, Washington and Jordan signed a ceasefire agreement for Southern Syria several weeks ago, they did not order Iranian troops to stay away from Israel's border.

Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated explicitly that the agreement does not oblige Iranians to withdraw. Russia's ambassador in Tel Aviv even went so far as to call Iran's presence in Syria "legitimate" - an affront to Israeli ears.

Mr Netanyahu felt forced to up the ante. His minister of defence requested to increase Israel's defence budget by more than a billion US dollars in the coming five years, a clear signal Israel is preparing for a two-front war against Lebanon and Syria.

In another instance of public diplomacy, Israel's chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot gave an interview to a Saudi newspaper, stating that Israel would not tolerate Iranian troops closer than 50km to its border.

The attack in al Kiswah, which is closer to Israel than the line drawn by General Eisenkot, is Israel's diplomacy racking the pressure up another notch.

"It was a signal to Moscow," says Mr Alex Tenzer, Russia expert. "They wanted to show Putin that they mean what they say."

It is unclear how Moscow will respond but there are positive signs for Israel. Last week, Mr Avi Dichter, head of the Knesset's committee for foreign affairs and a Netanyahu confidante, returned from Moscow, stating, "Russia is working so that (Syrian President) Bashar Assad will control Syria and that the country will be clean of foreign, including Iranian forces."

According to Mr Tenzer, the attack in al Kiswah was "hardly mentioned in Russian news - a clear sign that Moscow does not want to become involved in this battle with Iran".

However, Russia would also not intervene on Israel's behalf, as it "has significant diplomatic and economic interests in Iran it does not want to harm for Jerusalem's sake".

With Mr Putin staying neutral and the US keeping mum, Israel's attack is predominantly meant as a warning to Teheran. Its central message: Israel is prepared to even risk outright war to prevent Iran from deepening its military presence close to its borders. The attack in al Kiswah was therefore only the beginning of a prolonged campaign, in which Iran will try to build - and Israel to demolish - military infrastructure.

 

For now, the danger of war seems remote, as Israel carefully calibrated the attack to hit empty buildings, so Iran is not forced to retaliate.

Still, nothing guarantees things will remain low key next time. Escalation is only another bomb away.