SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar Assad meeting with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif in 2015..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lately Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have emphasized that Israel opposes the establishment of an Iranian stronghold in Syria. Israel is concerned at the prospect of Iranian air, naval and land bases inside Syria, which could serve to attack Israel. Israel should not underestimate this threat, but also not overestimate it. There might also be an opportunity for Israel to exploit this Iranian move to inflict a blow on Iran.
Iran has thousands of men across Syria, mostly its proxies, i.e. militias, including Hezbollah. Even if they are concentrated near the Israeli border, in the Golan Heights, with their artillery, tanks, etc., they still will not be a force capable of seizing any territory from Israel. Their weapon systems will be exposed to Israeli firepower. The main danger to Israel will be from guerrilla and terrorist raids.
Russia, which has quite an influence in Syria, seeks stability there while keeping Bashar Assad in office as official ruler of the country. If Assad allows Iran to strike Israel from Syria, let alone participates in such an attack, Israeli retaliation could bring him down. Iran and Russia will not want to risk Assad being toppled, after all their effort to save him. Even if Iran is willing to take that risk, Russia will oppose such a gamble.
Therefore Russia could restrain both Iran and Assad from provoking Israel.
Iran needs to protect Iran itself not only against Israel but against the United States and Saudi Arabia as well. Allocating elite Iranian units to Syria could help Iran in a fight against Israel, but not against a US and/or Saudi attack on Iran. For example Iran assimilated since 2016 the S-300, an advanced anti-aircraft system. Iran can deploy it in Syria, which would allow Iran to intercept Israeli aircraft inside Israel. However, sending Iran’s most sophisticated systems such as the S-300 to Syria will leave Iran vulnerable. There are many sites in Iran that require protection against air raids, not only the nuclear facilities but other key sites, such as those connected to the oil industry or the regime and Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). Iran must have its best air defense at such sites.
The same goes for the Iranian air force, so as with anti-aircraft missiles, with aircraft as well Iran will have to limit both the quality and quantity of its forces in Syria. Furthermore the Iranian air force is in decline. Its top fighters, the MIG-29 and F-14, are no match for Israel’s F-15/16s. If Iran sends aircraft to Syria to confront the Israelis the Iranians will probably lose, which will humiliate Iran. If Iranian proxies take a hit while using Iranian weapons Iran can blame them, but this excuse will not fly if Iranian aircraft, with Iranian crews, are shot down.
Much was said about Iranian access in northern Iraq and in Syria, which allows Iran to send men, weapons, etc., all the way from Iran to the Israeli border. Yet delivering mass amounts of troops and supplies by relying on a communication line that stretches over more than 1,000 km. could be quite a challenge. Israel of course has much shorter supply lines to the Golan Heights. Furthermore the “Tehran express” might be quite fragile if it absorbs attacks in both Iraq and Syria from Sunnis hostile to Iran, such as the Kurds. Israel, officially or not, could strike this Iranian route too.
Iran might want to gain a harbor on the shores of Syria, in the Mediterranean Sea, but this could cause a collision between Iran and Russia, since the latter has the same interest. Even if Iran gets a Syrian port, any ship from Iran seeking to dock there will have to bypass all of Africa, assuming that Egypt, which is well aware of Iran’s regional ambitions, will not permit Iranian vessels to use the Suez Canal. Such a constraint will make it much harder for Iran to keep contact with its Syrian naval base. In contrast the Israel Navy can patrol near Syria while staying quite close to its ports, and it would also have air support. Therefore as in air to air combat, in a sea battle, too, there could be an opportunity for Israel to humiliate Iran.
If Iran tries to produce a nuclear weapon then Israel might strike Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. An Israeli raid might be considered by many in the world to be an aggressive step. However, if Iranian units attack Israel from Syria then Israel could in retribution bomb Iran itself, including possibly its nuclear sites.
All in all Israel should not ignore Iran’s military presence in Syria. Yet because of the constraints and problems of such an Iranian deployment, it does not seem to be a major threat to Israel. The latter has to be ready to act, including militarily, inside Syria but Israel also has to be careful not to exaggerate that issue. Israel does not want to look weak – a regional power like Israel should not be overly concerned about a limited Iranian deployment near it.The author is a security analyst.