All eyes are on the Middle East after tensions between Iran and Israel reached new levels in Syria. Last week, Israel launched airstrikes on Iranian positions near Damascus killing 21 people with 12 of those casualties being members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC).
The Israeli Defense Forces released a video of the attack as both countries try to avoid a bigger conflict if the other side stops the aggressions. This attack happened while Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscow to discuss stabilization efforts in Syria. The Syrian government has succeeded in gaining control of almost the entire country.
This, combined with the ongoing diplomatic efforts had Syrians believing that the eight-year war has finally come to an end. These hopes diminished recently when Israel launched yet another wave of airstrikes against targets inside Syria. Israel had said that the targets were Iranian militias operating inside the country while Damascus maintains a position stating that there are no Iranian militias inside Syria, but only military advisors operating at the request of the legitimate government of Syria in combatting terrorism.
We have seen this episode before and it is nothing new. However, the general understanding that this incident could lead to a regional war between Iran and its partners on one side and Israel on the other would be extremely catastrophic for Syria’s economy and society. All of this is happening at a time when President Donald Trump announced that American forces would be leaving Syria. The Kurds, who have fought with the Americans, fear a possible confrontation with the Turkish Army as a result of an American withdrawal.
Tensions are once again rising in Syria, but there is a risk of a regional war between Iran and Israel turning into a wider conflict. The real danger lies in the possibility of a miscommunication or a mistake on the Golan Heights because it would not seem likely that Iran would launch a confrontation with Israel given that Israel receives a massive amount of military aid from the United States and it has nuclear weapons. Let’s also not forget that Israel is the only nuclear weapons state in the Middle East. Iranians certainly have no appetite for a regional war, but the danger does lie in an escalation on the Golan Heights, which is located on the Israeli-Syrian border.
Israel, like on the Golan Heights, also faces similar threats from Lebanon which have been there for decades and they cannot afford for the Iranians to have a similar presence in Syria. Having said that, the Russians are the ones rebuilding the Syrian Army in terms of its defense infrastructure. Even though Iranian-backed militias are on the ground in Syria, they have moved away from the south after liberating territories once controlled by the Islamic State and opposition rebels.
In fact, the Israelis said this a few months ago, and of course, Tel Aviv would love for the Iranians to leave Syria completely, but this will not happen anytime soon. Iran is in Syria to stay, but having said this, Moscow will be the prime lead to rebuilding the Syrian military and defense while the Iranians might have other interests to rebuild the state of Syria. The war in Syria is not yet over, but there have been some developments in Northern Syria, and at the same time, Iran wants to have some influence in the region given that Syria is one of their oldest remaining partners in the Middle East. Iranian influence in Syria is exaggerated at times, and Tehran has already started to draw down even though they are not going to leave completely until the legitimate government of Syria asks them to leave and this is the way Tehran sees it.
The Russians are driving a lot of the operations in Syria, and it sounds unlikely that Iran would turn on Moscow as Russia does not want to see an Iran-Israel confrontation in Syria or anywhere else. A stable Middle East is definitely in the Russian national security interest because Moscow has a lot of energy investments in the region, it has cordial relations with almost all the countries in the region including Iran and Israel, and the Russians see no incentive towards investing more in the military to stabilization efforts in the Middle East.
There is definitely military coordination between Iran and Syria, but most of the military operations that have taken place in Syria have mainly come from the Russian and Syrian forces. The Iranians have used Shia militias to combat Salafi extremism in far off areas near the Syria-Iraq border, as well as in the south. Tehran is not necessarily calling all the shots in Syria even though a lot of analysts would like to think that, but it is unlikely that Iran would conduct any kind of provocation in Syria that endangers a political solution or another regional confrontation with Israel.
However, there are some divergent issues between the Russians and the Iranians. There are differing views on what they believe Syrians want (even though Syrians should decide their own future, not from outside powers), as well as on the reconstruction front. In fact, the Russians do not want the Iranians to jeopardize the political process in Syria, and a provocation with Israel could draw a red line for Moscow. As Syria tries to reclaim its territorial integrity over the past three years, mostly thanks to the Russians and not the Iranians, it is certainly not in the interest of Damascus to provoke Israel. Iran is in Syria as a partner, but if it threatens Israel, the Russians would certainly not go along with it.
In December, President Trump announced a withdrawal of American forces from Syria, but the role of Washington throughout the Syrian conflict has been overstated. Whether the United States stays or withdraws from Syria will probably not make a huge difference on the ground since the United States has used more airpower than it has conventional forces in Syria. Of course, the U.S is symbolically important as a major power in the Middle East, but its ability to determine the results on the ground is extremely limited and its relevance in a political solution is very small.
The events that have shaped up what has happened on the ground in Syria have been dictated by Iran, Russia, and Turkey, especially in the Astana talks, so it looks like President Trump sees no reason for the U.S to stay as far as this goes, and the Syrians are going back to normal lives as the regional powers play a more important role outside of the U.S. For the Trump Administration, Iran has basically been the lynchpin for American hegemony in the Middle East, and has caused tensions with European partners on issues like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the President withdrew from in May of last year. In addition, Trump’s policy towards Iran has not only hurt ordinary Iranians, but it has damaged relations with partnerships beyond the conflict in Syria.