Will Iran and Israel clash on Syrian soil?

Open hostilities between Iran and Israel in Syria would present Moscow with a great dilemma; Russia will likely try to prevent such hostilities.

Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2011. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Members of the Iranian revolutionary guard march during a parade to commemorate the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), in Tehran September 22, 2011.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The confrontation between Israel and Iran seriously deteriorated after an Iranian drone, launched from Syrian territory, violated Israeli air space. On the same day, Israel destroyed the Iranian drone’s command point in Syria. In retaliation, the Syrians launched anti-aircraft missiles against Israeli fighter jets, shooting one down. After that, the Israel Air Force attacked multiple Syrian and Iranian military targets in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would continue to resolutely prevent any attempts to violate Israel’s sovereignty.
These events are just one of the several extremely dangerous incidents to have occurred in Syria in recent days. Among them are the clashes between Turkish and Iranian forces in southern Aleppo, the confrontation of US and pro-Iranian forces in Deir ez-Zor, and the large-scale operation of the Turkish army against Kurds in Afrin, which has been going on for a few weeks now. But the most dangerous incident is the Iranian-Israeli confrontation which, according to some experts, may grow into a full-fledged war. If Israel and Iran clash in Syria, it will involve the major powers – the US will undoubtedly take the side of Israel, which it considers to be a friend and important strategic ally.
But how likely is an Iranian-Israeli war? Is such a war possible on Syrian soil? And, most importantly, what will Russia’s stance be in the case of such a war? Full-scale war between Israel and Iran is quite improbable. Iran at least will not risk unleashing such a war, for several reasons. The first is the internal political situation in Iran. The country has recently seen mass protests, which were next door to a revolution.
Unlike the mass protests of 2009-2010, the present- day actions contain completely new challenges for the regime: representatives of all layers of the Iranian society took a stand against rising prices, unemployment and poor working conditions, demanded a referendum on regime change and that Iran stop financing militant groups in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.
The first, massive wave of protests was followed by another one in February. Iranian authorities have managed to suppress the wave of popular protests – but for how long?
The second reason is that the Iranian leadership is forming its “Shi’ite Crescent” – a giant empire stretching from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s support of the Shi’ite regimes in Iraq and Syria, the Shi'ite militia in Iraq (Hashd al-Shaabi) and the Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah comes at a steep price. Iran is not so rich that it can easily afford investing the billions of dollars required to enlarge its military presence in the region. And one should not ignore the fact that in October 2017 the US imposed new sanctions on Iran, particularly against the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. As these sanctions were imposed not long ago, it is yet early to judge their influence, though some negative implications are already possible to discern. There is a high probability that these sanctions will deal a serious blow on Iran, which will further affect its military presence in the region.
Third, Iran is well aware that by unleashing a war against Israel it would de facto be declaring war on the United States.
WITH REGARD to Russia, the issue is not as clear.
Open hostilities between Iran and Israel in Syria would present Moscow with a great dilemma; Russia and will likely try to prevent such hostilities. Russia is not interested in such a war, not only because the Kremlin maintains partner relations with both countries but also because should such a war break out, the US-led coalition will come to Syria, which is not in Russia’s interests as this would pose the risk of Russia losing its influence in Syria.
Moreover, Russia’s deputy ambassador to Tel Aviv, Leonid Florov, recently told Israeli media that should Iran attack Israel, Russia will take Israel’s side. The diplomat made the statement a few days after the incident with the drone on the Syrian-Israeli border.
“In case of aggression against Israel, not only the United States but also Russia will take Israel’s side. Many of our compatriots live here, in Israel, and Israel is generally a friendly country, which is why we will not tolerate any aggression against it,” said Florov.
And it isn’t only Russia and the US that would support Israel in the face of Iranian aggression: Russian analyst and Middle East expert Mikhail Magid, in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post, said that not only Israel but also most of the Arab states are concerned about Iran’s consolidation of power.
“The Arab-Iranian conflict is put at the forefront, pulling out the Arab-Israeli issue. Therefore, during confrontation with Iran, Israel can count on Saudi Arabia’s support and the benevolent neutrality of most Arab states. But the main issue remains open: which side will Russia take in case of Iran-Israel war? “When in 2017 the Saudi Arabian king visited Russia, he set the following provision: the Saudis are ready for a long-term economic and political cooperation with Russia in exchange for rejection of support for Iran, but Russia refused. Perceived in Washington as the main threat to American interests, Iran is viewed in Russia as one of the biggest problems for the United States. Moscow needs Tehran as an instrument to pressure the United States to prevent the strengthening of US sanctions against the Kremlin.
For this reason, Moscow wants to preserve alliance with Tehran.
“All the same, Moscow does not want to be dragged into a war against Israel or America. Forty-nine percent of Russians are against Russia’s participation in the Syrian war and only a little more than 20% support Russia’s involvement. The last thing Moscow wants is to be involved in a war against Israel.
The death of Russian contractors around Deir ez-Zor showed that nothing good awaits Russian air forces in a fight against modern [air forces]. [This knowledge] can make Moscow’s position quite flexible in relation to Israel. It is no accident that Russian missile complexes do not fire at Israeli airplanes that attack Iranians and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad in Syria almost every week. And Israeli diplomacy can use Moscow’s weakness.
“All the same, it would be quite risky for Israel to underestimate Russia. After all, this is a big military power with a strong nuclear potential. This factor cannot be ignored. Moreover, though Russia still refuses to shoot at Israeli airplanes and curbs the Iranians, preventing them from penetrating into the area of the Israeli-Syrian border, that does not mean that it will always act this way,” the Russian expert said.
The author is director of the Eurasia-Azerbaijan club and editor-in-chief of the Azerbaijani news agency Vzglyad.az.