Wednesday’s statement by the Iranian military’s chief of staff, Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, that it is “not acceptable for the Zionist regime to violate Syria any time it wants” indicates that Israel and Iran may be heading toward a collision over Tehran’s expanding influence in Syria.
The immediate background to the statement, made during a visit to Damascus to strengthen Iranian-Syrian military cooperation, was the Israeli air strike in Syria on Monday that destroyed a Syrian anti-aircraft battery in response to its firing of a missile at an Israeli plane on a reconnaissance mission in Lebanon.
However, according to a leading Iran scholar, Meir Litvak of Tel Aviv University, Bagheri actually is threatening that Iran will no longer tolerate the air strikes in Syria that Israel has mounted to destroy advanced weapons systems on their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“They want to build this land bridge to Lebanon so they can transfer accurate, long-range missiles to Hezbollah, which will be a game changer,” Litvak said. “Now, he’s threatening that they will no longer be silent about Israeli attempts to prevent this reinforcement of Hezbollah.”
Raz Zimmt, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the statement itself may not be significant, but the very fact of Bagheri’s visit to Damascus is.
“I don’t think it means they will respond [to Israeli air strikes]. If you look at the wording, he didn’t say that Iran wouldn’t accept it, he just said it is inconceivable.
It could just be voicing identification with Syria or, in a more extreme scenario, that he intends to discuss with the Syrians the transfer of air defenses to Syria.”
But Zimmt added: “The escalation could stem from the very fact of increasing the security cooperation that is the goal of the visit.”
Litvak said he does not know if the perceived threat will be translated into action, but that it is a real possibility and could take the form of Shi’ite militiamen firing rockets into the Israeli-held part of the Golan Heights.
Statement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following US President Trump's speech on Iran, October 14, 2017. (YouTube/IsraeliPM)
The direction of Iranian policy in Syria might lead to an armed confrontation with Israel, he said.
“Iran recruited thousands of Shi’a fighters who fought for the Assad regime. Now that the war is won, there’s a danger they will turn them against Israel,” he said.
“Iran is grooming its proxies to play a role in Syria and some say openly that they want to confront Israel,” Litvak added. “If this is their aim, then clearly there is a risk of confrontation. That Iran is trying to build a wider Hezbollah front against Israel from both Lebanon and Syria increases the risk of confrontation.”
Litvak noted that, after pouring out billions of dollars and incurring casualties to save the Assad regime, Tehran is now trying to consolidate economic control through concessions and contracts.
“For Iran, Syria is a special prize, a pet project. It is crucial and they have no intention of allowing anyone to harm their pet project and challenge their position in Syria,” he said.
According to Zimmt, the talks in Damascus, where Bagheri was also due to meet with President Bashar Assad, were intended to cover a variety of topics likely including continued Iranian supply of weaponry; what comes next after the defeat of Islamic State and how to safeguard Iran and Hezbollah’s interests in that context; and how to restore coordination between Iranian forces and pro-Iranian militias and the Syrian regime.
Bagheri said he had come to Damascus “to assert and coordinate, and to confront our common enemies the Zionists and the terrorists. We drew up the broad lines for this cooperation.”
The key question, Zimmt says, is to what extent Moscow will check the growing Iranian influence.
“Russia is the dominant actor in Syria and it can decide how much freedom of action it will allow the Iranians. But my estimation is that even if there will be limitations, they won’t be substantial and will relate only to the presence of Iran and Hezbollah in the area close to the border with Israel.”
Regarding reports in the London-based Asharq al-Awsa
t newspaper that the Russians had agreed to keep the Iranian militias 10 to 15 kilometers away from the border on the Golan, Zimmt said: “If this report is right, it means that they can act from 30 kilometers from the border and, of course, this is a very problematic scenario for Israel. I can’t say if this will force Israel to act in an offensive way, but it’s very clear that the Iranian and Hezbollah presence creates greater friction.”
Moshe Maoz, professor emeritus of Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University, said he is more worried about the Russians than the Iranians.
“They are the ones who control the airspace. Until now, there have been tactical understandings with them, but when Israel goes deeper I’m not sure what Russia will do. Putin prefers Iran to Israel. The question is, what are Russia’s redlines?”