On Monday, the New York Times published a feature which highlighted the clash between Israeli and Iranian forces based in Syria which took place earlier in February and reportedly brought new attention to the issue of Iran’s deepening and potentially permanent foothold in the Arab nation just across the border from the Jewish state.
The Times piece addressed the threat of a broader conflict emerging in the wake of that initial clash, in which an Iranian drone breached Israeli airspace, leading to the destruction of a dozen military sites in Syria and the downing of one Israeli jet. The article noted that in the event of further escalation, it was likely that Israel and its backers would face an entire axis comprised of the Syrian army, a patchwork of Iran-backed militias, Iran’s longstanding Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and perhaps the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Additionally, the Times pointed to the ways in which Iran’s construction of a so-called Shiite crescent connecting Tehran to Damascus by way of Iraq had opened up the door to more active transfer of weapons to Hezbollah and other militant proxies. It has been suggested that these activities have lately been in service of long-term Iranian plans for the region that involve total victory over rebels who oppose the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, after which the attentions of the “resistance axis” would shift to confrontation with Israel.
This assessment of the situation was given additional credence on Tuesday when Newsweek reported on the war of words that had developed after the February 10 drone incursion. That report emphasized the public response that had been delivered by Mohsen Rezaei, a former head of the IRGC and secretary of the Expediency Council, in response to warnings from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Since the flare-up, the Israeli PM has repeatedly declared that his country would take action against Iran if it attempted to continue building military bases in Syria. These statements seem to have serve the dual purpose of threatening Iran against any further incursions while also urging the United States and other major players to take actions that would constrain Iran’s regional ambitions. The imperative for this action was arguably underscored by Rezaei’s response, which vowed that Tel Aviv would be “leveled to the ground” if Israel launched any sort of attack.
“U.S. and Israeli leaders don’t know Iran and don’t understand the power of resistance, and therefore they continuously face defeat,” Rezaei said in an apparent reference to the growing threat posed by networks of anti-US and anti-Israeli forces organized under the Iranian banner.
Despite the mutual threats coming from Tel Aviv and Tehran, there appears to be widespread agreement among global policy analysts that neither side is eager for war with the other. But while this might support the conclusion that outright military conflict is still some distance away, there are immediate signs of possible proxy war. This threatens to have the effect, among other things, of further prolonging and complicating the Syrian Civil War.
On Wednesday, Haaertz reported that Israel had apparently expanded its support of seven Syrian rebel groups. This change of strategy reportedly includes the provision of arms to those groups, and it is motivated by a desire to prevent Assad from reasserting control over the Golan Heights and subsequently providing Iran with a foothold along a fuzzy border with Israel.
Haaertz also characterized the move as a response to contrary changes in the strategies of the US and its allies. These include America’s withdrawal of much of its own support for armed opponents of the Assad regime, as well as the decision of international negotiators to allow Iranian installations as close as five kilometers to the Israeli border, as opposed to the solid 60 kilometers requested by Israeli officials.
To the extent that these conditions have intensified the threat of further clashes between Israel and Iran, they may have also spurred additional efforts by Western powers to exert pressure on Iran and its allies to more seriously pursue a political solution. Agence France Presse gave this impression in a report on Wednesday, which highlighted some of the latest statements on the matter from the Germany government.
The report identified a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel as pointing the finger at both Iran and Russia for the persistence of devastating airstrikes in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta region. “Without the support of these two allies, Assad's regime would not be where it is today,” said Steffen Seibert, “and undoubtedly, without this support, this regime would have to show more readiness to negotiate in the UN (peace) process.”
But while these remarks seem to identify Iran as a potential contributor to the peace process, reports like the one in the New York Times suggest that Iran’s priority in Syria is a complete military victory in service of hegemonic ambitions for the broader region. On the other hand, the Russian role in Syria is not generally characterized in this way, and various analysts have suggested that divergent interests between Moscow and Tehran could lead to the former helping constrain the latter.
This possibility is underscored by the fact that Russia has historically maintained good relations with Israel and thus would presumably favor a solution that secures at least some of its interests where Iran and Syria are concerned. But while Russian support may ultimately be a factor in preventing Iran from following through on its latest and greatest threats against Israel, there is little expectation of it being a similar factor in constraining Iran’s broader regional ambitions, at least as long as Iran and Russia remain close allies.
But these broader ambitions have also been put back in the spotlight following the clash with Israel and the subsequent Western condemnations of Iranian activities in the region. On Tuesday, Fars News Agency quoted Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi as rejecting statements issued by both Britain and France regarding the Iranian ballistic missile program and the alleged transfer of Iranian arms to regional proxies like the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Qasemi referred to accounts of these activities as “lies” despite the fact that the United Nations Panel of Experts recently released a report confirming previous American accounts of evidence for the Iranian origin of Houthi missiles which were recovered after being shot down in Saudi Arabia. The denials were also reiterated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani while hosting acting Dutch Foreign Minister Sigrid Kaag, according to Press TV.
As well as calling the accusations of missile shipments “completely wrong and baseless,” Rouhani asserted that Iran’s adversaries were playing a “blame game” instead of working to resolve the crisis. In an effective mirror image of the German calls for intervention with the Assad regime, Rouhani urged Western powers to bring an immediate halt to the Saudi bombing campaign against the Houthi rebels. But given that the Houthi rebels control a far greater portion of Yemeni territory than Syrian rebels control of their own country, Rouhani might be seen as demanding that the world accept a permanent Iranian presence in both countries.
Such demands are often much bolder and much more explicit when they come from other, recognizably hardline Iranian officials. In an example of this, Iranian.com highlighted “incendiary comments” from Hossein Shariatmadari regarding Iranian efforts to expand the regime’s influence in another country of the region: Bahrain.
The conservative journalist’s assertion that Bahrain “belongs” to Iran was reportedly seen as least partly reflecting the view of regime authorities, given that Shariatmadari is also a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iranian.com also notes that the Revolutionary Guards are recognizably eager to contribute to sectarian tensions in Bahrain, with an eye toward shifting it away from the Western sphere of influence and toward Iran’s Shiite crescent.
But while that article is actually sympathetic to Iran’s efforts to assert its own influence against that of the US and its allies, Iranian.com is also pessimistic about the chances of success in that endeavor, assuming the Western powers remain committed to defense of the status quo. It is not clear whether this observation extends to assessments of Iran’s chances of securing permanent footholds in Syria and Yemen. But as those efforts continue to develop and bring the Islamic Republic into conflict with longstanding regional adversaries, it seems likely that Western powers will respond by exerting more pressure on Tehran.