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Syrian Regime Will Test the Boundaries of the Proxy War

The civil war that has ravaged Syria began in 2011, following the Arab Spring and domestic opposition to the Assad regime. However, it has since morphed into a volatile international conflict resulting in one of the world’s worst refugee crises. Iran and Russia quickly came to the aid of the Syrian regime, and for a time the rebels received aid from various western nations. Throughout the war, countless proxy conflicts have played out across Syria, but in recent months all eyes have been on Israel and Iran. Countless volleys between the two rivals, denials of aggression and covert action have brought what might be the final act in the seven-year conflict and the opening act of yet another conflict. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have massed in the southwestern corner of Syria, along the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan, in an attempt to drive out the few remaining rebel pockets in the country. Although the main aggressor is the Syrian regime, it is supported by Iranian militias. Therefore, as these forces move closer to Israeli territory, it may spark a separate conflict between Israel and Iran.

At this advanced stage in the war, Iran enjoys a significant military presence in the Levant, which its long-standing enemy Israel sees as a direct threat to its national security. Neither state wants to see the other gain any further influence in Syria or the Middle East in general. Their particular conflict has escalated into the most militarily active of the numerous proxy wars playing out in the region. Almost every air strike targeting Syria or its Iranian military positions is attributed to Israel by social media users on the ground. This is even true of some explosions which are now believed to have been caused by overheated ammunition. Only some of these attacks have been officially claimed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, although this may not remain the case for long: as pro-Syrian forces continue to bombard areas near Israel’s border with Syria, Netanyahu’s rhetoric against Iran grows stronger. [1]

Daraa, a small city in southwestern Syria with ever-growing importance, has come under direct assault by the Syrian regime. One of the starting points of the civil war, it may prove to be one of its last battlefields. Bordering both the Golan Heights and Jordan, Daraa is one of the last rebel strongholds in the country, along with Idlib to the north and Kurdish-held lands in the northeast corner of the country. Following a strategy similar to that of its captures of Damascus and Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian regime began its offensive in Daraa by amassing forces in the area days before beginning a continuous barrage of air raids, barrel bombs and artillery and rocket fire. Days before the assault, leaflets were dropped on civilians demanding their cooperation in an operation to rid the city of rebels. Though the UN and western nations have called upon Syria to stop their attacks that are endangering civilians, the regime shows no signs of slowing down.

Who controls which areas of Syria

[2]

 

Aside from being dangerous for civilians, this siege is also dire for Israeli-Iranian tensions. It is the largest offensive near the Israeli border thus far, and though it is technically being carried out in the name of the Syrian regime’s continued campaign against the rebel group, Israel is likely to perceive it as a threat due to Iran’s involvement. It also represents an existential threat to the Syrian state. Iranian-backed militias now roam the country freely as tens of thousands more civilians try to flee to neighbouring states. Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance,’ comprised of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, seem to have all but won the war in Syria, but can Iran put down permanent roots in the country? Or rather, will Israel and its close ally the United States allow it to do so without a fight? A look back at the long-standing animosity between Israel and Iran sheds some light on the current tensions building in Syria’s southwestern corner.

In the midst of his military crackdown on peaceful protestors in 2011, Assad lost many of his national soldiers to rebel groups. After this he claimed a lack of military personnel, which would serve as the reason for the appearance of Iranian-backed militias all over Syria. Once backed and trained by western states, many rebel groups have since become radicalized and lost their sponsors, and with them much of their military power. The tide of war began to further favour the Syrian regime when Russia became militarily involved in 2015, sending personnel and weapons to Assad and his allies. Ever since, Russia has had the firmest foreign grip upon the conflict of any of the external state actors in the war.

Russian President Putin now often acts as a mediator between all sides, furthering his aim to re-instate Russian power in the region. In addition to Russian air power, Syria has had Iran’s military presence, in the form of its proxies, serving as Assad’s boots on the ground for most of the conflict. However, both Iran and Syria deny any official Iranian military presence in the conflict. In response to Russia ordering all non-Syrian forces away from the Israeli border, Assad claimed in a broadcast in May that there have never been any Iranian troops in Syria, only Iranian officers aiding the Syrian army.

This year alone, there have been several suspected incidents and attacks between the two rivals. In February, Israel shot down an armed Syrian drone on its border, causing Iran to respond by shooting down an Israeli F16. On April 9, an air strike on Iran’s T4 airbase in Palmyra reportedly killed several Iranians, including an officer in charge of drone operations. The attack has been attributed to Israel, and in early May Iran responded in kind with 20 rockets fired at the Golan Heights. Israel quickly countered with dozens of strikes against so-called Iranian strongholds in Syria. This took place two days after the United States pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the “Iran nuclear deal”).

The change in U.S. policy has been seen by some as a green light for Israel to attack its long-standing foe. Prime Minister Netanyahu has clearly demonstrated on countless occasions during the conflict that Israel will not shy away from a fight with Iran. Indeed, recently he and his representatives have been on air using strong rhetoric to describe their hardline stance concerning Iranian aggression in the Golan Heights. Indeed, on June 25, an air strike hit a cargo plane near Damascus Airport and is suspected to have been by Israel.

In early June reports began to pour in of Iranian militias arriving at Thaala military airport with equipment to reinforce the Syrian regime. Syria and its allies were transporting armored vehicles and weapons to the Daraa area. On June 18, Hezbollah and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) targets were hit during airstrikes attributed to Israel. The following day, Syrian government forces attacked rebel-held positions in Daraa, Quneitra and Sweida with sweeping air strikes. Though the rebels are in dire need of external support, the United States issued a statement to them that it would not be sending any military support. However, Daraa was one of four de-escalation zones agreed upon by Iran, Russia and Turkey in 2017 and later confirmed in a meeting between Trump and Putin at the G20 Summit. The assault marks Assad’s disregard for the de-escalation zones and requests from the UN to halt operations.

Over the course of the seven-year conflict, Israel has frequently struck Hezbollah and Iranian bases within Syria. Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that Iran helped to establish in the 1980’s, entered the fray almost immediately on the part of Syria, but it operated covertly until 2013. Since then it has become a prominent fighting force and has replaced Syrian troops along the southwestern borders of the country. [3]

In February it was reported to be 6,000 troops strong. That report also estimated that Iran’s militias in Syria total some 20,000 soldiers. [4] Thus, Iran has had a significant role in defending Syria, and is not likely to leave once the fighting is over. Hezbollah is a long-time enemy of Israel in its own right. Israel’s inability to defeat it in their 2006 conflict bolstered support for the Lebanese group in the Middle East.

Iran’s alliance with Hezbollah is of great strategic importance, as this link to Lebanon gives Iran access to the Mediterranean and a vantage point from which to stave off an Israeli attack. Additionally, Iran’s relationship with Hamas gives it control in the Gaza Strip. Over the years Iran has amassed militant proxies across the Levant, from Lebanon to Iraq, and the Syrian civil war has provided the opportunity to bring them together and test their strength. This final stretch of the war will either force Iran to decide on a new purpose for its militias in Syria or if it will turn toward Israel for its next target.

Map of Syria and Areas Affected By War

[5]

Any outright confrontation between Iran and Israel could possibly drag the United States back into the fray, considering its long-standing alliance with Israel and its recently disintegrating nuclear deal with Iran. The U.S. currently has about 2,000 troops in the northeast corner of Syria held by Kurdish forces. Assad may very well turn to that area next after Daraa, but in doing so would assuredly be creating a larger conflict with the U.S. Saudi Arabia would also be loath to see Iranian military capabilities fully established in Syria, as it has long endured a proxy war with Iran of its own. If the United States became militarily involved against Assad and Iran, Saudi Arabia would be certainly be pressured to join its close Western ally as well. Additionally, the U.S. exit from the UN Human Rights Council last week on behalf of its treatment toward Israel was a symbol of how strong their alliance is.

As the war dwindles down, pro-Syrian forces have begun to consolidate in a seemingly last collective offensive against the rebels. Amidst the fighting, the Israel Defense Forces fired a Patriot missile at a drone near its border with Syria on June 24. It is suspected to have been an Iranian drone, meaning Iran may be testing Israel’s reach and capabilities or sending a warning. Remaining Iranian strongholds are Tiyas air base, Kiswah base and Al Shayrat airfield, a compound near Damascus Airport. Iranian proxies are scattered along the western coast of Syria, including troops from Lebanon, Iraq, and Iranian Shia jihadists. Iran has footed the bill for training and arming many of these militias to fight its war in Syria over the last seven years. It has put a strain on an already weakened national economy that has suffered under UN and U.S. sanctions.

Indeed, several outlying factors must be considered in the Israeli/Iranian dispute. Since April, Tehran has seen the value of its currency drop 50%, resulting in domestic protests. [6] Though is not clear how much Iran has spent on the Syrian war, considering its struggling economy, it does not seem likely to be able to maintain such an extended military campaign for very long. Rather, it cannot do so without quelling domestic unrest over the cost and its flailing economy. Aside from the tariffs imposed by the United States’ decision not to renew the nuclear deal, President Trump is calling on U.S. allies to stop importing Iranian oil. If he is successful, it would strike another blow to the Iranian economy. If the nuclear deal is not patched and Iran attempts to build a nuclear arsenal while beginning a full-scale war with Israel, it would certainly be stretching itself thin.

Another state to consider is Russia. Though Iran and Russia seem to have grown closer over their mutually desired outcomes in Syria, political analysts are still wary of labelling their relationship an alliance. Indeed, despite its current policy alignment with Iran over the Syrian war, Russia remains a steadfast friend to Israel, with whom it brokered a deal to keep Iranian forces away from Israel’s border. As the Syrian government’s forces have used Iranian-backed militias to flush rebels out of the Israeli bordered areas, Netanyahu has become increasingly vocal about his discontent at Iranian forces so near Israel’s territory.

At little cost to Russia, Putin has gained more power over the region by stepping in to take advantage of Israel’s discomfort. President Putin has been afforded leverage and leeway in the Levant as he continues to dictate much that goes on. But if a full-scale war between Israel and Iran broke out, could either side truly rely on Russia? Or would it continue to play the part of peace broker, friend to all and ally to none. It is likely that President Putin would not look favourably upon an Israel/Iran war, as he would not want to lose his costly and newly-gained foothold in the Middle East. [7]

The timing of Iran’s push towards Israel’s borders is not ideal for Israel, which has been dealing with increased Palestinian protests on the Gaza Strip and has been heavily criticised by the international community for its handling of the situation. With Hamas to one side and Hezbollah to another, a united Syria and Iran on its doorstep and a Jordanian government unwilling to take in anymore Syrian refugees, Israel is all but surrounded by reasons not to strike Iran.

Though the anti-Assad rebel groups called for a rallying point in the south and counterattacked the regime’s positions, it proved to be too little too late. In July, Damascus re-claimed its entire southwestern border area with Israel and Jordan. Up north, the last rebel stronghold in Idlib was bombed on 13 August 2018 and looks set to fall to an increasingly aggressive government offensive. The Syrian government looks set to re-conquer its country. When it does, it will need to heal its self-inflicted wounds. President Assad will also have to decide what to do with the Iranian militias he is now indebted to. Should he allow Iran to maintain military bases in Syria, it would ensure his smooth return to control of the country security-wise, but it could provoke his neighbour in the Golan Heights. Israel has been clear: any permanent Iranian military fixture in Syria will be considered a threat to its national security.

Although the country in Israel’s immediate vicinity lies in ruins, now would not be a good time for Israel to strike, and the legality of such a pre-emptive strike is a highly contested topic within the UN, concerning Article 51 of its charter. Israel would have to make an extremely potent case to prove it was under threat from Iran and Syria. A state’s ‘right to self-defence’ has not included reprisals since 1945, so even if Iran struck first, Israel is not guaranteed to be allowed a full-scale counter attack. [8] In its weakened state, Syria would do better to let the dust settle, reclaim its refugees and rebuild its infrastructure without the help of Iran. In doing so, it could prevent another war and mitigate an already devastating conflict that is likely to resonate in the Middle East for years to come.

 

 

SOURCES:

[1] Alami, M. 4 May 2018. Iran-Israel Proxy War Heats Up in Syria. Atlantic Council. [Online]. Available from: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/iran-israel-proxy-war-heats-up-in-syria.

[2] Chughtai, A. 26 June 2018. Syria’s War: Who Controls What? Aljazeera News. [Online]. Available from: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2015/05/syria-country-divided-150529144229467.html.

[3] Phillips, C. 2016. The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[4] Hubbard, B. & Halbfinger, D.M. 9 April 2018. Iran-Israel Conflict Escalates in Shadow of Syrian Civil War. The New York Times. [Online]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/09/world/middleeast/syria-russia-israel-air-base.html.

[5] International Crisis Group. 25 June 2018. ‘The Syrian regime has launched an offensive to regain rebel-held areas in #Syria’s south’. [Online]. Available from: https://www.linkedin.com/company/international-crisis-group/.

[6] Radio Free Europe. 2 August 2018. Iranian Cities Again Hit by Protests Over Currency Drop, Economic Woes. [Online.] Available from: https://www.rferl.org/a/iranian-provincial-capital-hit-by-second-night-of-protests/29406666.html.

[7] Young, M. 4 June 2018. Russia in the Middle. Carnegie Middle East Center. [Online]. Available from: https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/76494.

[8] Byers, M. 2005. War Law: International Law and Conflict. London: Atlantic Books.

 

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