Iran Strike on Syria Contributes to Regional Escalation

On Monday, Western media was abuzz with reports of the previous day’s ballistic missile strike that had been carried out in eastern Syria by Iranian forces. This was one of several recent stories that seemed to point to worsening tensions among various stakeholders in regional affairs, including Iran and its longstanding adversaries Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel.

Fox News pointed out that the ballistic missile strike was the first such strike carried out directly by Iran on foreign territory in 15 years. However, the Islamic Republic has been credited with supplying missile technology to a wide range of terrorist groups and paramilitary proxies, for use in other combat zones, including Yemen, Lebanon, and Palestine. The smuggling of weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen had apparently allowed them to penetrate deep into Saudi territory in the weeks before US President Donald Trump sought to strengthen ties with America’s Middle Eastern allies and to use those ties in the confrontation of Iran.

The threat of Iranian weapons reaching militant groups is a contributing factor to international demands for curtailed Iranian missile activity. It stands alongside the issue of those weapons being used in the possible future development of a nuclear weapon. Long-range ballistic missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and therefore the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution coinciding with last year’s implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement, in which it urged the Islamic Republic to avoid work on such weapons for the duration of the deal.

Iranian officials have publicly disregarded this urging, with the supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani recently declaring that “the Iranian nation has chosen to be powerful” and that the regime would not bend to any foreign pressure over its military buildup. Since the passage of the relevant UN resolution, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has conducted at least seven ballistic missile tests, sometimes accompanying them with provocative rhetoric as by declaring readiness for war against “enemies” or painting the weapons with the statement “Israel must be wiped out.”

The IRGC also directed clear rhetoric against the US and Saudi Arabia in the wake of the strike on supposed ISIL targets in Syria. General Ramazan Sharif, for instance, gave an interview to Iranian state television in which he said of the strike, “The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message.” The provocative message is made even clearer by the fact that the strike, although allegedly aimed at ISIL militants, struck the city of Deir el-Zour, which various recent reports have identified as an area of major competition between US-backed and Iranian-backed forces vying for strategically significant territory recaptured from ISIL.

Deir el-Zour is, however, not alone in bringing the US and Iran closer to direct conflict against the backdrop of the Syrian Civil War. The two adversaries are simultaneously escalating their own interventions into that conflict. Iran has been backing the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship virtually since the outset of the war, with the IRGC directly commanding local militias and also recruiting for them from across the region. American influence, meanwhile, has mostly been limited to logistical and financial support for moderate rebel groups, but recent reports have placed more emphasis on the presence of American special forces in northern Syria, which has compelled the Iranians to alter former plans for the movement of ground forces and the establishment of international supply routes.

Furthermore, American air support is working to enforce newly established “deconfliction zones” that will ostensibly protect US-backed forces organized under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The New York Times reported upon these efforts on Monday, noting that an American fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane that had dropped bombs near rebel forces in the area of the town of Tabqah.

The shoot-down was the first such act by American forces since the civil war began in 2011. And apparently by sheer coincidence, it occurred on the same day as the unprecedented Iranian missile strike. Such escalation is arguably to be expected at a time when, as the Times notes, Iran-backed forces in Syria and Iraq are trying to link up with each other and create a supply corridor leading directly back to Tehran. Success in this endeavor would naturally be regarded as harmful to the interests of the US and its allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

At the same time, Iranian efforts to extend its arm across the Middle East are no doubt further motivated by the fact that key adversaries are coordinating to try to push back against such imperialism. The development of a joint strategy was made apparent last month when President Trump attended an Arab summit in Riyadh that yielded a final statement in which Tehran’s regional activities were directly criticized. Furthermore, mutual anxiety over those activities has led to some signs of formerly unheard of coordination between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In the wake of Iran’s ballistic missile strike, the government of Israel warned against further such activities and publicly declared that it was watching Iran closely, according to Agence-France Presse. Of course, this is far from the first recent instance of Israel warning that it is ready to act against the Islamic Republic if other world powers fail to do so. Yet the recent statements and actions by the US and Saudi Arabia strongly suggest that such failure is presently unlikely.

As one other apparent example of these actions, Reuters reported on Monday that Saudi Arabia had captured three members of the IRGC who had been on one of three vessels that approached Marjan oilfield. Saudi officials said that the three individuals were being questioned and that they were suspected of planning a “terrorist act” using explosives that were on the captured vessel.

On June 7, gunmen killed 17 people and wounded dozens of others in Tehran, in a pair of apparently ISIL-linked terrorist attacks. Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has also been targeted by ISIL, Iranian officials quickly blamed Saudi Arabia for the attacks – an allegation that was reiterated on Monday by Iran’s English-language propaganda network, Press TV. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, a special advisor to the speaker of the Iranian parliament, reportedly made the claim last week that the Tehran attacks “were carried out by the request of Saudi Arabia’s security services.” No evidence has been presented to substantiate these claims, which are indicative of the current state of rhetoric between the two regional adversaries.

In addition to serving as a message to the US and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s missile strike on Syria was also explained as an act of retaliation against ISIL for the Tehran attacks. In light of this and the allegations of Saudi responsibility for the same attacks, it is possible that the captured IRGC operatives were indeed attempting to strike Saudi Arabia on the basis of the same pretense.

As tensions continue to escalate in the immediate area, Iran is also looking elsewhere for support in its pursuit of wider conflict with longstanding enemies. Russia and Iran have remained close throughout their mutual contributions to the Syrian Civil War, and various warning signs have appeared in recent years regarding the possibility of greater Chinese support for Russian-Iranian antagonism of the West. This issue reemerged once again on Monday when the Associated Press reported that two Chinese warships, a logistics ship, and a helicopter had joined with an Iranian warship for joint maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz, where IRGC vessels have antagonized passing American ships on numerous recent occasions.

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