Over the last 6 hours or so, events took place in Syria that will shake the Middle East for years to come.
Shortly after midnight on Thursday, Iran fired missiles directly at Israeli forces for the first time in history, and Israel proceeded to carry out an assault on Iran and its allies in Syria that Israeli security sources called the single largest attack Israel had undertaken since the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1974. The attack came after Iran lobbed about 20 rockets at Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) stationed in the Golan Heights. These in turn came in response to 3 strikes Israel launched against Iranian positions in Syria over the last month and a half or so, which, until tonight, elicited only harsh rhetoric from Iran’s primary allies on the ground, the Lebanese militia and terrorist group Hezbollah.
As the dust settles, it is clear that Israel exacted a serious, calculated, but limited attack upon Iran and Hezbollah, and struck several bases throughout Syria with a combination of Patriot missiles fired from northern Israel and airstrikes from above. The IDF stated that it was only targeting Iranian positions, and warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces not to intervene or face attacks as well. The IDF confirmed that it struck the Quds Force, Iran’s main foreign fighting battalions, at dozens of different positions throughout southwestern Syria, and despite Israel’s warnings, Assad did choose to intervene. As a result, Israel reportedly hit several different Syrian army bases throughout the country, striking weapons depots, radars, and other military equipment. The Syrian army’s storied 4th division was also struck. Two Hezbollah positions were also reportedly hit.
But let me step back for a bit to explain why this is so important. Over the last few years, as the west has been focused mainly on fighting ISIS in Syria, Assad had quietly been winning the civil war against anti-government rebels who have been fighting the Syrian government since 2011. Since 2015, Assad had received significant help in the Syrian war from Russia and its air force, and had been cooperating with Iran long before that. As Assad has steadily recaptured swathes of territory from the poorly armed rebels, Iran, as one of his primary backers, has been able to establish a lasting presence in the country, and has at least 10 operational bases there already. Two of them are close to Syria’s border with Israel. Iran has reportedly also trained up to 20,000 troops in Syria, and Hezbollah, which is the largest of several militias fighting on its behalf, has been one of Iran’s main tools for supporting Assad and his relatively weak army on the ground.
All of this is unacceptable to Israel. Iran has long threatened to destroy Israel, which has been the main reason it has been so fervently opposed to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Because Israel views Iran as an existential threat, a situation in which Iran is able to mobilize troops and set up bases right across the border from it is one that the Israel will fight tooth and nail to prevent. To this end, Israel has been carrying out periodic strikes against Syrian territory over the past few months, some of which killed Iranian soldiers.
But Syria is too important for Iran and Hezbollah to give up without a serious fight. Iran has poured millions, if not billions, into funding its operations in the country and sacrificed many lives to get where it is today. Meanwhile, Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, has grown its ranks and has benefited immensely from its time in action in Syria. If Iran and Assad triumph in Syria, Hezbollah would for the first time be part of a chain of Iranian control that would stretch from the Mediterranean Sea through the Levant and Fertile Crescent to the borders of Afghanistan.
So why did Iran wait all this time without striking back at Israel? Over the last several days, two events in particular have changed both Israel’s and Iran’s calculus in Syria: Donald Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and Hezbollah emerged victorious in the Lebanese parliamentary elections. While the Iran deal was in effect under both Barack Obama and Trump, Iran was wary of taking any direct action against Israel for fear of upset the US and its allies. Now that the deal is off the table, Iran likely felt that there was no point in holding back, and decided to finally respond to Israel’s repeated strikes against Syrian territory over the past few months. Last week, Hezbollah, which functions as a civic and political organization in Lebanon as well as an armed militia, expanded its share of seats in Lebanon’s parliament in the country’s first general elections in 8 years. Although Hezbollah are by no means in control of the Lebanese government itself, they have exerted significant political and military power in the country for years, and last week’s elections only further cemented their influence over Lebanese politics. With the elections in their pocket, Hezbollah, which is funded in part by Iran, seemed well positioned for an Iranian confrontation with Israel in Syria.
But while fears swirled that Israel’s attack would spiral out into a larger war between it and Iran and Hezbollah, after several hours of bombardment, all has fallen quiet on the Syrian front. After initially urging residents of northern Israel near the borders of Syria and Lebanon to seek shelter, the IDF has given the all clear and confirmed that school will resume as normal in these communities tomorrow, indicating that they believe there will not be an Iranian retaliation.
But it seems unlikely that Iran will give up all that it has achieved in Syria as a result of Israel’s operation. It also seems likely that Israel will respond again if Iran refuses to budge. At the end of the day, although neither power really wants an all-out war, they also fundamentally cannot accept the other’s position. This is exactly what makes the situation in Syria so dangerous, and why it is practically inevitable that clashes like this will continue, potentially developing into a full-scale conflict. And where has Russia been amid all of this? In a meeting with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu earlier today, Vladimir Putin reportedly gave Israel the go-ahead to strike at Iranian positions, promising that it would not intervene. In return, if reports are correct, Netanyahu has agreed to help Russia secure its strategic interests in Syria, which include establishing army and navy bases of its own.
When the world wakes up tomorrow, the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East will look very different than it did only a few short hours ago. The fates of many will undoubtedly be at stake.