On Wednesday, April 27, according to Syria’s Defense Ministry backed by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Israel launched a missile attack on positions near Damascus killing four Syrian soldiers. The Syrian state news agency claimed the missiles had been launched from Tiberias in north-eastern Israel. According to the head of SOHR, Rami Abdel Rahman, the missile attacks hit arms depots in several suburbs of Damascus used by Iran-backed groups. At least five separate sites were targeted.
The SOHR was established in 2006 to catalogue human rights violations by the dictatorial regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. Since the Arab Spring rebellion against the Assad regime in 2011, it has set up a vast intelligence-gathering network in every region of Syria and become an authoritative source of information about the effects on the civilian population of Assad’s ruthless conduct of the conflict, backed – as his forces are – by both Russia and Iran.
Israel issued no statement on the reported April 27 attack, nor about one reported on April 14 when several missiles hit Syrian army positions near Damascus. What Israel has said in the past is that any Iranian or Iranian-supported presence near its northern frontier is a red line and that it targets the bases of Iran-allied militias, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, which has fighters in Syria backing the Assad regime.
Israel has also said it attacks arms shipments believed to be bound for the Iran-supported militias. For example, in December 2021, hours after the Israeli military reportedly struck arms shipped from Iran in Syria’s Latakia port, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said: “Israel will not allow Iran to stream game-changing weapons to its proxies and to threaten our citizens.”
Of the many conflicts in the Middle East, the ongoing proxy war between Iran and Israel is potentially the most explosive. Built into the DNA of the Iranian Revolution from its start in 1979 is the aim of destroying Israel, as a preliminary step toward the destruction of Western democracy as exemplified by the United States. In pursuit of this fundamental objective, Iran’s leaders have provided funding, weapons and training to groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), which have carried out attacks on Israel and which have been designated terrorist organizations by many countries.
Because Israel perceives the Iranian regime as an existential threat to its very existence, it has consistently opposed Iran’s nuclear weapon and missile programs. It seeks also to downgrade Iran’s allies and proxies, and prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria, another sworn enemy of Israel.
For years, Iran and Israel have engaged in a shadow war, quietly attacking each other – directly or by proxy – on land, by air and at sea. Escalation to all-out war has been deliberately avoided, and attacks usually remain either unattributed or plausibly denied. For example, the assassination of five Iranian nuclear scientists between 2010 and 2020 remains unexplained and unacknowledged, to say nothing of the series of mysterious explosions at various of Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2020.
In April 2021, Iran blamed Israel and vowed revenge for an explosion at its largest uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, which it said caused significant damage to its centrifuges. It was the second time in less than a year that the site had been hit by a suspicious blast. Israel neither confirmed nor denied it was responsible for either attack.
A cyber attack that paralyzed Iran’s gas stations nationwide on October 26, 2021, has also not been acknowledged.
Backed heavily by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hezbollah’s military forces in Lebanon have, if the boasts of its leaders are to be believed, accrued a vast arsenal of rockets and missiles along the border. Israeli forces have repeatedly struck at Hezbollah’s rocket pipeline within Lebanon, and Hezbollah has on occasion retaliated by firing rockets into Israel and attacking Israeli troops along the border.
As for Syria, ever since the civil conflict started in 2011 Iran has been strengthening its military presence in the country in support of Assad. Using its so-called Shia Crescent, Iran transfers weaponry meant for Hezbollah through Iraq and Syria. In an effort to stop the arms flow and counter this second hostile presence on its northern border, Israel has conducted an increasingly open campaign of air strikes in Syria against the flow of weaponry and its storage.
At sea, tit-for-tat attacks on commercial vessels in and around the Gulf of Hormuz began in 2019 – again with little by way of explanation for each incident. Since several targets have been Iranian tankers carrying oil toward Syria, media and the public have been left free to speculate.
There is always a risk of this long-standing proxy war suddenly igniting into direct military conflict between Israel and Iran. Whether this nightmare scenario ever materializes turns on how Iran’s nuclear program emerges from the current negotiations in Vienna around reviving the nuclear deal. The administration of President Joe Biden seems dead set on concluding a new agreement, which all reports indicate would delay but not eliminate Iran’s eventual acquisition of a nuclear military capability. Iran‘s leaders say they have no ambition to build nuclear weapons. The hoard of secret documents spirited out of Iran in 2018 suggests otherwise.
In Washington on October 20, 2021, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned that Israel was prepared to use military force to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability. “Iran has publicly stated it wants to wipe us out,” said Lapid. “We have no intention of letting this happen.”
Should force be required to stop an Iranian bomb, Israel would have to act and almost certainly act alone. That is how the long-standing Israel-Iran proxy war could assume a terrible reality.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020.