Israel’s strikes on Iranian Forces in Syria: retaliation or aggression?

Last night, Israel launched its largest strike in Syria since the beginning of the civil war, with the IDF reporting that they had struck almost all of Iran’s military infrastructure inside of Syria. This military operation was carried out with the same impressive firepower and precision that we’ve come to expect from the Israeli Air Force, with IDF Spokesperson Jonathan Conricus stating that Israel had struck 70 different targets, including Iranian intelligence sites, logistics headquarters, military compounds, munitions warehouses and observation posts. The Israeli Air Force had also managed to knock out several Syrian anti-aircraft defense systems that had failed to down a single Israeli fighter jet.

This bold assault was in direct response to Iranian Quds forces launching 20 rockets at the Golan Heights (of which four were intercepted by the Iron Dome and sixteen fell short of their mark). This sad attempt of an attack on the Golan came after days of Iran making exasperated threats against Israel. Despite all the tough talk, Iran’s words weren’t exactly matched by its firepower and after last night’s performance by Israel, the Iranians are left humiliated and with a significantly weaker presence in Syria. There’s nothing more embarrassing than spending decades threatening Israel with annihilation just to have them eliminate the majority of your military presence in the span of roughly four hours.

When news of the attack spread, the typical responses were given by the typical countries. France and Germany called for both sides to show restraint, the Sunni nations praised Israel’s devastating attack on their arch foe and the United States parroted similar statements to those of the Sunni nations, but added the classic talking point that they support Israel’s right to defend itself. But let’s be honest, is Israel really defending itself here?  

While I’m not exactly shedding any tears for the Iranian militants and Syrian government forces that were killed in the Israeli strikes, I do feel the need to point out that the narrative seems to be slightly distorted when it comes to Israel’s actions in Syria and just who is defending themselves from who. It all comes down to how far you’re willing to widen the scope and timeline of military actions and how much you’re willing to trust each country. Much like everything in the Middle East, it’s not black and white.

Iranian forces didn’t just fire 20 rockets at Israel out of the blue. They had been threatening to strike Israel for several weeks now after Israel had been interfering with their operations in Syria more openly in recent months. Indeed, after Israel recently bombarded the Syrian city of Baath, Iran felt that they were forced to retaliate after drawing so many red lines and never keeping good on their word. So in a certain sense, it was Iran who had technically retaliated against Israeli strikes. This would mark the first time that Iran has actually formally attacked Israel since they (arguably accidentally) flew a drone into Israeli airspace on February 10.

While Iran has never truly attacked Israel except in the aforementioned cases, Israel has a long history of interfering in Syria, with the Israeli Air Force launching well over 100 airstrikes in the past seven years on Syrian territory. Israel will contend that these strikes have largely been on weapons convoys to Hezbollah, a terrorist group that seeks its destruction, but that isn’t entirely the case. Israel has also aided Syrian rebels (like the Al-Nusra Front, Syria’s branch of Al-Qaeda) through their field hospitals along the Golan. The reality is that through their myriad airstrikes and under the table support for the rebels, Israel has played a small role in the destabilization of Syria in a way that has weakened the Assad Regime enough to keep the war going longer but not enough to actually make a difference in terms of the rebels’ ability to win. Israel has essentially been the fly buzzing in Syria’s ear and after awhile, someone is going to try to swat it. As we saw the other night, that somebody turned out to be Iran. 

While Israel has certainly interfered in Syria, its reasons for doing so aren’t entirely unjustified. The reality is that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has called for Israel’s destruction. It’s important to note that the rabid ramblings of Iran’s Ayatollahs have not just been mere rhetoric, but have been followed by some pretty serious actions. Iranian leaders have been open about their desires to acquire nuclear weapons to use on the Jewish State and the Islamic Republic has been providing funding and arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, two terrorist groups that have called for Israel’s destruction and who have backed up their stated aspirations by engaging in armed conflict with the Jewish State on numerous occasions.

When one acknowledges this reality, it’s not exactly surprising that Israel views Iranian Quds forces near their border as an existential threat. Indeed, Israel views all Iranian presence in the region with both skepticism and concern. Why should Israel allow Iran to funnel weapons to Hezbollah that will inevitably be used against them in a future war? Why should Israel allow their greatest enemy to perch along their border?

Now, an argument can be made that, until recently, Iran’s forces in Syria have never truly targeted Israel and are in Syria (a sovereign country) at the request of the leader of that country, Bashar Al-Assad. After all, it’s no secret that Syria and Iran are allies. Indeed, Syria even supported the Islamic Republic during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. As far as Iran is concerned, they’re engaged in a perfectly legal and legitimate foreign policy with their allies and what they do in Syria is none of Israel’s business. After all, if Iran wanted to use their position in Syria to attack Israel, they could have done it a long time ago and yet, they hadn’t fired a single shot. Moreover, Iran will argue that Assad doesn’t want Iranian forces to leave and they have permission to launch attacks on Syrian territory; can the same be said about Israel? Why does Israel get to claim that attacks on the Golan are a violation of its sovereignty but then in the same breath violate Syria’s sovereignty through launching countless airstrikes for years without any form of retaliation? Why does Israel insist that its enemies play by the very rules that it chooses to ignore on a near daily basis?

A further argument can be made that Iran has the right to provide weaponry to Hezbollah, as Hezbollah is a quasi-governmental branch of Lebanon that’s engaged in the same objective as Iran when it comes to Syria (fighting Sunni rebels that are trying to overthrow the Assad Regime). Indeed, is this simply not a case of state actors working together? Just as the United States technically has the right to provide Saudi Arabia with weapons and logistics support against Houthi rebels in Yemen, why does Iran not have the right to do the same with its proxies in Syria?

It’s not that Iran is doing anything brazenly illegal so as to warrant an immediate Israeli military response, it just comes down to whether we expect Israel to wait until it does, at which point Israel would be risking a worse outcome on their part, where numerous civilian lives could be lost. After all, in a recent meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin admitted that Russia has virtually no say over Iran’s actions in Syria and he confessed that he’s unsure what Ayatollah Khamenei’s plans are after Assad eventually defeats the rebels. After all, when Syria came to Lebanon’s aid during their civil war in 1976, Syrian forces didn’t pull out of Lebanon until 2005! Iran could very well “overstay their welcome” in the same way. In other words, this could very well be the first stage of a permanent plan to keep a strong Iranian presence within striking distance of Israel, where Iran attacks Israel when they’re fortified (and finished with their activities in Yemen and Syria). After all, there’s no rush and this way, they can focus their attention on a singular goal rather than dividing their resources by fighting wars on so many different fronts. Should Israel be forced to wait for the inevitable?

Both Israel and Iran have stated that they don’t want a war. Iran especially wants to avoid war now, as it scrambles to do everything that it can to put on a moderate face for the European Union, who it’s relying on to keep some semblance of the JCPOA intact after America’s withdrawal. Fighting a war with Israel would be the worst thing Iran could do right now if it wanted the EU to ignore US sanctions and stay the course.

So for now, we’ll have relative calm (which isn’t a very high threshold when it comes to the Middle East) but questions still remain as to just how far Iran will go to keep its grasp around Syria and just how much either side will tolerate the other’s meddling before tensions flare and an Iran-Israel war becomes inevitable. Unfortunately, due to the ambitions and stubbornness of Iran’s leadership and the steadfastness of Israel’s, it doesn’t appear to be a question of if war will happen, but when.  

About the Author
Michael Aarenau lives in Montreal, Quebec. He has a Bachelor's of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carleton University and is currently pursuing a law degree at McGill University. Michael is passionate about human rights, international affairs and justice. For cheeky insights in 280 characters or less, follow him on twitter @MAarenau
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