As tensions between Iran and Israel continue to flare, exacerbated by America’s recent decision to withdraw from the Obama era nuclear deal, observers are all asking the same question: how far will this series of clashes continue to escalate?
At this point, following a series of Israeli attacks over the past two months, the ball is largely in Iran’s court. Let’s lay out scenario Tehran has to contend with when considering retaliation against Israel.
In recent years of the Syrian conflict, Israel has shown itself willing, while perhaps reluctant, to execute strikes on the country. Over the past two months, however, there has been a clear escalation in Israel’s military actions against targets to its north. This trend began in early February when in response to an Iranian drone infiltrating Israel, the country’s air force targeted the craft’s base of origin at the Tiyas Military Airbase in Homs. The operation (that consisted of two waves of strikes) hit a total of 12 targets and resulted in some 25 Syrians and Iranians dead, as well as one Israeli fighter shot down. Two weeks ago, another strike hit Syria’s Hama province. The resulting blast registered 2.6 on the Richter scale, indicating the target was highly explosive. It was later reported that a missile depot was destroyed in the attack and some two dozen Iranians were killed.
Then came the May 10th airstrikes, launched in response to rocket fire on Israel’s north by IRGC units. The scale and scope of these attacks were greater than any Israeli military operation in recent history. Some 50 separate sites were hit over the course of several hours, including logistics complexes, weapons storage, sites belonging to Damascus International Airport, intelligence systems, as well as observation posts and military hardware installations. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 11 Iranians were among the 46 killed in Israel’s strikes.
Israel has certainly taken a more aggressive stance. Judging from the statements of its leaders, Israel seems prepared to go all the way. And Iran knows it.
Iran’s current situation is precarious not because it lacks retaliatory options (far from it) but because it has little room to maneuver without suffering serious backlash.
As one Israeli commentator pointed out, Iran establishing itself in Syria, while projecting its power and increasing the threat it poses to Israel, has proved to be a huge strategic liability. During the long history of the Israeli-Iranian proxy war, the two countries all the while remained distant. By making inroads into Syria, Iran began to expose its assets to Israel. Supply convoys, IRGC bases, and weapons systems were now within strategic range of the Israeli air force. This was the real reason why Israeli air strikes in February were such a big deal. While Iran and Israel have been in conflict for years, the strikes on Homs were the first time Israel and Iran actually clashed directly. This incident and all other strikes over the past two months showed that if Iran were to escalate, it would put the rest of its assets in the country at tremendous risk. Furthermore, Iran cannot rely on its partners in Syria to intervene. Putin has given a free hand to Israel to target Iranian sites. This is because, from Moscow’s perspective, the only thing that really matters is keeping Assad’s regime intact. Indeed, this was the reason Russia offered its game-changing support to the Syrian government to begin with and is an interest of Putin’s that would be threatened by Iran upping the ante with Israel. Turkey, while not being particularly fond of Israel, is also primarily interested in de-escalating the fighting to its south.
The best the region - and indeed the world - can hope for, is that some combination of factors currently constraining Iran’s moves will force the situation in Syria to de-escalate.