Pro-Iranian militias in Syria's Deir Ezzor province recently came under missile attacks from unknown launchpads and Tehran did not react to the escalation, indicating the hostility is likely to have wider consequences.
On December 25, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that five pro-Iran fighters were killed by “missiles of unidentified origin” in Deir Ezzor, a province in eastern Syria. Although no entity admitted carrying out these attacks, Israel was widely assumed to be the responsible party, as Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi pledged to thwart Iran’s aspirations of establishing a permanent military presence in Iraq and Syria shortly before the missile strikes were launched.
Regardless of whether the IDF is confirmed as the perpetrator of these air strikes, the December 25 events will likely result in an escalation of the Israel-Iran proxy war that has threatened to engulf much of the Middle East.
The Deir Ezzor strikes underscore Israel’s growing willingness to use military force against what it sees as Iran’s threatening presence in Syria. In early December, Israel launched precision air strikes against Iranian weapons caches in eastern Syria, and on December 23, the IDF carried out a strike on the outskirts of Damascus, which killed at least three non-Syrian nationals.
Israeli officials have also sounded the alarm about an intensified conflict with Tehran and Aviv Kochavi stated on December 25 that Israel was preparing for a potentially limited confrontation with Iran.
In addition, the December 25 attacks reflect Israel’s desire to show the United States that it is willing to take unilateral action against Iran, even as the US continues to disengage from the Middle East.
Many Israeli officials were frustrated with US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw forces from northern Syria in October, as they feared that this policy would assist Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in Syria.
The Israeli government’s belief that the US is not serious about converting maximum pressure against Iran’s economy into genuine military deterrence has caused Israel to act unilaterally in Syria, and the Deir Ezzor strikes reflect these sentiments.
Iran’s response to the Deir Ezzor attacks could also contribute to escalating conflict with Israel. Although Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian Supreme Leader’s chief advisor on foreign affairs, vowed in a December 23 interview with RT Arabic that “Israeli airstrikes against Syria will not go unanswered and Tel Aviv will regret having committed these crimes,” the Iranian authorities have remained curiously silent about the events in Deir Ezzor.
To explain Iran’s restraint, Ali Ahmadi, a Tehran-based political analyst, told TRT World that Iran is exercising strategic patience, as Israeli air strikes have not materially weakened Tehran’s ability to support the Assad regime and a “huge new war with Israel would be unwise before the Syrian government has reestablished sovereignty.”
Israel might interpret Iran’s silence and the absence of a direct retaliation from Hezbollah, which saw one of its command centers struck by the unidentified missiles, as proof of Tehran’s lack of preparation for a broader systemic confrontation with Israel and step up its pre-emptive strikes on Iranian targets in the weeks to come.
This scenario would likely cause Iran to re-evaluate its policy of strategic patience and favour more aggressive policies towards Israel. Hamidreza Azizi, a professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, told TRT World that Iran’s restraint can be explained by its desire to avoid a conflict that would “hamper the project of expanding its influence and presence in Syria,” but further strikes from Israel would result in a “full escalation.”
If continued Israeli air strikes in Syria could provoke a major retaliation from Iran, public opinion in Israel could swing decisively in favour of escalated military confrontation with Tehran.
Israeli public opinion data shows entrenched opposition to a first strike against Tehran, unless Iran acquires nuclear weapons, and even in the scenario of a nuclear-armed Iran, there is substantial support for deterrence. This public opinion trend deterred Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from launching a unilateral strike against Iran in 2011-12 when it appeared imminent and continues to restrain the IDF’s conduct.
A retaliatory strike by Iran or one of its proxies would profoundly change this calculus and could tempt Netanyahu to launch a military campaign against Iran, as the general elections draw closer.
Moreover, it is conceivable that continued Israeli strikes in Syria will provoke an asymmetric Iranian response, where a pro-Iran militia group in another Arab country attacks Israel in retaliation.
As pro-Iranian officials in Iraq and Lebanon are facing nationalist backlash, and the Houthis in Yemen have threatened Israel in recent weeks, there is a real risk that new theatres of the Israel-Iran proxy war could open.
If Israel continues launching pre-emptive strikes, like the December 25 attacks in Deir Ezzor, and Iran continues to encircle Israel’s northern border, 2020 could be a year of mutually destructive escalation in the long-running Israel-Iran proxy war.
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