Syria strike sends message to Tehran and Moscow
AN AIRSTRIKE in Syria in the early hours of Thursday morning last week, targeting what is reported to have been a centre manufacturing chemical and ballistic weapons, is widely accepted in the region as being the work of Israel. Officials in Jerusalem have not officially acknowledged responsibility but it would seem as if the attack on a target operated jointly by Hezbollah and the Assad regime was part of a more complex message to both Tehran and Moscow.
In recent weeks, Israel has been waging a campaign against Iran’s plans to deepen its presence in Syria, making the country a link between Shi’a-dominated Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon. The campaign has had a public side, including an interview last month with the outgoing Israeli Air-Force commander in which Israel fully acknowledged for the first time that it had been behind nearly 100 strikes on Hezbollah convoys and weapons depots in Syria over the past six years.
The diplomatic side of the campaign is chiefly between Israel and Russia. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Sochi to urge President Vladimir Putin not to allow Iran to continue pouring more forces into Syria. The location of last Thursday’s attack, in northern Syria, near a Russian anti-aircraft battery, was a message as well.
The Russian government has yet to comment on the airstrike. Its silence, and the fact that Russian air defence units did not try to hamper the attack, demonstrates that for now, the Kremlin is happy to allow both its Iranian allies and Israel to operate in Syria, as long as Russia’s main interest – safeguarding the Assad regime in Damascus and enabling it to gradually regain control of parts of Syria it lost to the rebels – is not harmed.
But while this arrangement has worked for Russia since it first deployed its forces to Syria two years ago, it may not continue to work for much longer. Iran is already working on establishing a long-term presence in Syria beginning the day after the civil war ends. Tehran is planning on extracting a full price from President Bashar Assad for its assistance in the shape of an Iranian port on the Mediterranean, an air-base and other permanent military strongholds.
Israel has made it clear that it will not allow permanent Iranian bases to be established so close to its border. Russia will have to make a choice whether to rein back the Iranians. If Russia continues to allow Iran to entrench in Syria, the dilemma in the country post-war will then be Israel’s. Does it risk an all-out conflict with Iran’s proxies in Syria and Lebanon, possibly enjoying the support of Russia, or will it have to accept the fact that Iran has expanded to its borders?