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Manish Rai explains that the tensions between Israel and Iran have rapidly increased in the past month—to the point that Israel’s concern about the Iranian threat, now present not only in Lebanon but also in Syria, is at an all-time high.
Iranian missile displayed (archive) Photo Credit: EPA
The proxy war between the two Middle East heavyweights Israel and Iran has been going on for decades now. But the recent incident of Israeli air raids on Iranian bases in Syria and downing of Israeli F-16 fighter jet by Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries for the first time in 36 years has raised the temperature and bought these two nations into a direct confrontation with each other.
The enmity between these two rival powers is not new; the roots go back to the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution that toppled the Shah of Iran, a key United States ally and the only Middle East leader at that time with close ties to the Israelis.
Post-Islamic Revolution Iranian leaders have frequently referred to Israel as the “Little Satan” accompanying the “Great Satan,” the United States. It’s believed by Israel that Iran poses the most significant threat to its survival. Ideologically committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, Iran’s top leaders frequently make explicit calls for Israel’s annihilation.
Recently, there have been clear indications that Iran is testing the waters in Syria. It is seeing how far it can go, and how far it can push Israel’s red line. The Iranian threat has always concerned Israelis, but at this point in time, it’s at an all-time high.
Iran is proactively working on the strategy in which multiple fronts can be opened against Israel in case of any future conflict with the Jewish state. In accordance with this strategy, Iran is using Syria as its forward military base. It can’t be certainly said that Iran has decided to initiate a war with Israel in near future, but it is making systematic preparations to be able to do so. Iran now has a massive military establishment in Syria. This consists of substantial numbers of elite Revolutionary Guards troops. There are also the Iranian funded Popular Mobilisation Units. These are groups of Shia Islamist fundamentalists drawn from a wide range of nations, from the minority Shia communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and throughout the Arab world, as well as from Iraq. There are also 6,000 to 8,000 battle-hardened Shia Hezbollah fighters in Syria; they are also being directed by Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister holds up piece of Iranian drone that Israel downed earlier this month Photo Credit: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO
Tehran is also deploying missile launch system in southwest Syria near Golan Heights. In addition to this, Iran has multiple unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launch sites in Syria, most notably is T4 base, which is located to the northwest of Palmyra. Moreover, Iranians are also in talks with the Syrian government to establish air force bases containing Iranian fighter jets and Iranian naval bases on the Syrian coastline.
Iran has big plans to create a military outpost in Syria with its permanent bases, right on Israel’s doorstep. From there, the Islamic Republic could threaten and attack Israel in the future. With such a significant military might at its disposal and in such a close proximity to Israel, Tehran’s wants to use Syria as the ideal place to set up militarily alongside Israel cannot go unchecked.
Iranian military forces are now themselves at Israel’s door along with their proxies. Very soon Iran will be capable of opening three fronts simultaneously against Israel. First will be Hezbollah to Israel’s north in Lebanon; second the Iran regular forces and its allied Shiite militias to its east in Syria; and third Hamas from the south in Gaza. If Hezbollah launched a missile war with Israel from Lebanon, and Iranian forces and proxies simultaneously did the same thing from Syria, and Hamas did the same thing from Gaza, this would cause maximum stress, suffering and mass dislocation in Israel. This kind of well-coordinated and multi-front assault on Israel would surely decisively break its economy and its morale.
For many years, the Israeli strategists thought that the only existential threat that Israel would face was the prospect that the radical regime in Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. But now with Iran developing new and enhanced capabilities in Syria, which if not checked can turn into an existential threat to Israel in coming time, Israelis have quickly come to understand that a strategic Iranian presence in Syria would be much more difficult to neutralize once it expands.
To check this growing Iranian threat, Israel should use both options: diplomacy and military. Through the diplomatic option, Israel can pursue Russia to check on Iran’s ambitions. Russia has been cooperating with Iran in the Syrian war but also seeks to maintain good relations with Israel. Moreover, Israel can negotiate with the U.S. and Russia to expand the buffer zone in southwest Syria where Iranian-backed forces aren’t allowed to operate.
By exercising the military option, Israel can dominate the airspace of southwest Syria, and especially over the Syrian Golan Heights, to prevent both the transfer of advanced weapons to Iranian proxy Hezbollah and the establishment of any permanent Iranian bases near the Israeli border. If required, Israelis should also conduct pre-emptive strikes in which the Israeli Air Force can target Iranian forces and their allies to erode their capabilities.