Israel, Iran starting war of attrition?

Israel’s alleged attack on an Iranian outpost in Syria last Saturday could kick off a new confrontation between Tel Aviv and Teheran. It also indicates tensions between Israel and Russia are on the rise.

The Syrians’ almost seven-year civil war may be nearing its end, but that does not mean peace for the Levant. Quite the opposite: A new battle has begun.

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 Nato’s southern flank. Moscow has also signed contracts with Mr Assad on 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, close to its arch-enemy Israel.

These prospects have the United States and Israel extremely worried, and 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. A BBC report said that base was being remodelled to serve as a future hub for ground troops of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Independent sources have confirmed this.

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, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has bragged about his excellent relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. They established a unique mechanism to prevent a potential clash between Israel’s air force and Russian troops in Syria. That has so far granted Israel a large degree of freedom in Syria’s skies to safeguard its security interests.

According to its air force chief, Israel has attacked targets in Syria more than 100 times since the outbreak of the civil war, mostly to destroy arms shipments destined for Hizbollah, a Shi’ite militia bent on destroying Israel that has become Iran’s most powerful foreign policy tool. Moscow has declined to comment on almost all the attacks – taciturn 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 warned that Iran was replacing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria there. That warning has come true. According to the Iranian opposition, Iran commands over 70,000 fighters in Syria: hundreds of its own soldiers, around 7,000 Hizbollah fighters, thousands of Afghan recruits in the Al Fatemiyoun militia, and volunteers from Iraq and Pakistan.

Mr Netanyahu visited Mr Putin repeatedly, warning him in August in Sochi that Iran “no longer attempts to create a terror front in Syria but, rather, (is) establishing a military force”. “These are things we cannot accept,” he warned. That failed to impress Mr Putin, nor has it spurred Israel’s most important ally, the US, into action.

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

Mr Netanyahu felt forced to up the ante. His defence minister requested to increase Israel’s defence budget by more than US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) in the coming five years. Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told a Saudi newspaper 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 ratcheting up the pressure another notch. “It was a signal to Moscow,” said Russia expert Alex Tenzer. “They wanted to show Putin they mean what they say.”

It is unclear how Moscow will respond but last week, Knesset foreign affairs committee head Avi Dichter returned from Moscow and said: “Russia is working so that Assad will control Syria and that the country will be clean of foreign, including Iranian, forces.”

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 was therefore only the beginning of a prolonged campaign, in which Iran will try to build – and Israel to demolish – military infrastructure.

For now, 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. Escalation is only another bomb away.



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