Israel-Iran conflict is no surprise but implications are unclear

If the precise timing of the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Iran in Syria is surprising, the fact that it has occurred is less so.

For well over a year Israeli officials have been talking up the Iranian threat and the prospect of a conflict in “the north”.

High-profile journalists – including the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman and others – have been briefed by Israeli officials on the northern border and by pro-Israel thinktanks for pieces increasingly suggesting the reality of the coming war with Iran.

Western media outlets have been full of Israeli-sourced satellite imagery showing what are claimed to be new Iranian facilities.

The drumbeat of war – almost exclusively from one side – has been insistent, setting the stage for this week’s escalation.

The reality of this softening up of public opinion with the coincidence of Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions – moves coordinated with Israel – means that analysis of who is to blame for this outbreak of hostilities demands even more than usual scepticism and careful unpackaging.

In terms of who has been responsible for both violence and the escalating sense of crisis, it is important to note that it is Israel for several years that has been conducting air and missile strikes with impunity against targets in Syria, perhaps several hundred in total until an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace earlier this year.

Those attacks, which at first often struck what were described as weapons storage facilities and missiles transfers to Hezbollah, have recently become more pointed and dangerous.

In recent weeks Israel appears to have stepped up a notch in pursuing a deliberate policy of provoking Iran, including by targeting Iranian advisers in Syria leading to reported Iranian fatalities in strikes.

If the context of Israeli military action is not hard to fathom, then neither is the strong sense that its recent actions, informed by that background, have been deliberate.

Israel’s strategy of deterrence on its northern border – including preemption – is based on a policy of preventing a significant threat developing that would allow its enemies to hit Israeli population centres. But equally important is any development that is seen as potentially limiting the Israeli military’s freedom of action.

All of which was said explicitly by Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, in a recent speech to soldiers ahead of the recent strikes, telling them: “We are facing a new reality – the Lebanese army, in cooperation with Hezbollah, the Syrian army, the [Shia] militias in Syria and above them Iran – are all becoming a single front against the state of Israel.”

For those reasons alone, recent events have made a worsening confrontation in the north inevitable.

But what of Iran? While there is no question that it has rapidly been expanding its influence in Syria – and its material support for the Lebanese Hezbollah in ways bound to be felt as an existential threat by Israel – Tehran’s gameplan appears to have been much longer, murkier and incremental.

Despite the scores of Israeli strikes Iran has – until Wednesday night at least – so far limited its response in keeping with a long policy, largely in place since the Iran-Iraq war, of trying to avoid direct confrontations.

Instead, Iran has operated through proxies and deployment of advisers, a tactic that has served it reasonably well from Iraq and Yemen to Lebanon and Syria, where it has generally intervened to bolster and consolidate Shia interests.

Despite that pattern, Iran’s actions to Israel’s north have increasingly looked like dangerous and hubristic overreach.

One explanation is that Tehran misinterpreted Israel’s own serious miscalculations over the likely trajectory of the war in Syria, which it believed would result in Hezbollah being bloodied and weakened by its intervention in the country’s civil war.

As the forces of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Hezbollah, Tehran and the intervention of Russia, turned the war in Assad’s favour, Iran saw an opportunity to further expand its presence, confronting Israel with a long-unacceptable scenario: Iranian advisers, just over its border, settling in for the long haul.

The real question now is whether the basic underlying assumptions governing the rules of the competition between Iran and Israel have changed in light of the latest exchanges.

As Russia has called for calm, Tehran will also be aware that a direct and escalating conflict with Israel would almost certainly risk bringing the US in on Israel’s side under a highly unpredictable US leadership whose inner circle is now dominated by anti-Iran hawks, a calculation Israel may be gaming.

And while the most likely outcome – long prepared for by the Israeli military – has always seemed a war between Hezbollah in Lebanon and Israel, Hezbollah is only too well aware after the devastating impact of the 2006 war of the dangers of being drawn into conflict with Israel on Israel’s timetable.

None of which makes the situation less dangerous in the short or the long term.


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