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Dhaka Tribune

Israel-Iran tensions: Is Syria the new battlefield?

  • Israel has been bombing Syria covertly for years
  • Some experts worry the Gaza conflict will make things worse
Update : 24 Apr 2024, 04:49 PM

Only a week after an alleged Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus, Syria, it was business as usual for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Accompanied by his wife and family, he appeared in public at the end of the Islamic holiday month of Ramadan, taking part in prayers and walking the city streets.

If he seemed unperturbed by the fact that a foreign power had apparently killed several high-ranking generals in his capital just a few days earlier, then that was on purpose, says Haid Haid, a consulting fellow with the Middle East and North Africa program at London-based think tank Chatham House.

“The [Assad] photo op was not accidental. It’s part of a wider campaign to show that business is proceeding as usual,” Haid said during a Chatham House panel on the topic this week. “I think the message was that Syria will not be part of any retaliation for the Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate and Syria will not be the main theater for that response.”

But that’s not surprising, Haid noted. “Because from the beginning of the war in Gaza, Assad has been distancing himself from regional escalation and portraying himself as neutral.”

There are a number of reasons for this. Due to the long-running Syrian civil war, local military would not be equipped to respond anyway, the Syrian economy is in tatters, and political neutrality on Gaza could serve the Assad regime well in foreign policy terms.

Syrian transit route for Iran

The Syrian regime’s attitude comes despite the fact that Israel has actually been attacking sites in Syria for over a decade. In 2012, the Iranian government became involved in the Syrian civil war, helping to defeat opposition forces. In return, Syria has been useful to Iran, offering a land corridor to transport equipment and fighters towards Lebanon.

Hezbollah, the most powerful of the various military proxies that Iran supports around the region, is based in Lebanon and is also present in Syria. Both Iran and Hezbollah consider Israel and the US enemies.

Iran’s growing presence in Syria has concerned the Israeli military. They’re worried about the build-up of Iranian troops and infrastructure nearer their own borders. This is why Israel has regularly targeted Syrian infrastructure.

“Israel’s primary interest in Syria is to prevent a strategic Iranian military presence across Syria, including Iranian construction of military infrastructure and cultivation of local partner forces,” think tank International Crisis Group explains in its online monitoring of the conflict. “Israel has carried out more than 100 strikes on convoys and warehouses serving Hezbollah’s Syrian supply lines.”

After late 2017, the pace of Israeli attacks picked up, Crisis Group noted. Observers say Israeli attacks were happening on an almost weekly basis.

Why doesn’t Syria retaliate?

Given that it’s still dealing with an ongoing hangover from its long running civil war and more concerned about its own survival, the Syrian government has not been in any real position to respond to Israel. If it did, it was usually with rockets that landed on empty ground, analysts have noted. And Israel didn’t often target Syrian assets anyway; it was more likely to shoot at Iranian objects.

However, since the October 7 resistance campaign on Israel by the Gaza-based Hamas group, Israeli strikes on Syria have become even more frequent. And whereas in the past, Israel mostly avoided killing Iranian or Hezbollah operatives, this has now changed, Chatham House expert Haid wrote in a commentary earlier in April.

“The change in Israel’s transnational strategy — from merely targeting Iran’s affiliates to directly eliminating Iranian leadership in Syria — was prompted by the October 7 attacks and Israel’s apparent dissatisfaction with the limitations and failures of its containment strategy,” he explained.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, has spoken about plans to expand a campaign against the Lebanon-based military arm of Hezbollah. “We will reach wherever the organization operates, in Beirut, Damascus and in more distant places,” Gallant told Israeli media in late March.

That peaked with the alleged Israeli bombing of the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus on April 1, which killed seven people, including senior Iranian military officers and Hezbollah members. This led to Iranian retaliation on April 13, the first direct rocket and missile attack on Israel.

The fear of more direct attacks by Israel and Iran on one another seems to have been quelled for now. However, experts all agree that indirect attacks are likely to continue.

“The conventional wisdom in policy circles is that attacks in Syria are low cost,” says Dareen Khalifa, a senior advisor at International Crisis Group, referring to the fact that Syria tends not to react to such attacks.

“So, in that sense, I think we are going to continue to see Syria being a launchpad for attacks from Iranian-backed proxies in the country; it’s also going to continue to be a rear base for them. And as such Israel is going to continue its attacks on Iranian assets in Syria,” she concludes.

However just because it’s happening in Syria doesn’t mean it can’t lead to further regional escalation, Khalifa warns.

“What we’ve been seeing is an incremental escalation regionally. Every actor has quantitatively and qualitatively escalated their tit-for-tat attacks. But thinking these [attacks] are low cost, doesn’t mean other parties are going to see it the same way,” she explains.

“There’s very little margin for error or miscalculation.” That’s something the Iranian embassy attack in Damascus has already shown, she noted.

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