Syrian youths walk past a billboard showing a picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wearing sunglasses while dressed in a Field Marshal's camouflage fatigues, on display in the centre of the capital Damascus on July 9, 2018, with a caption below reading in Arabic: "If the country's dust speaks, it will say Bashar al-Assad." (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel-Syria Military Exchanges Portend Possible Escalation

Events raise concern over possible attempt by Iran to raise tensions with Jewish state amid Tehran’s intensifying dispute with Washington

For the second time in less than a week, the Israel Defense Forces struck military targets in Syria in response to projectiles fired toward the Golan Heights. In the latest incident, unidentified forces launched two missiles from just outside Damascus, one of which landed in Israeli territory.

The IDF early Sunday morning answered with strikes reportedly targeting an Iranian weapons cache and a Hizbullah military training base near the Syrian capital, as well as targets in Quneitra, located along the Israeli-Syrian border. This follows an Israeli attack last week against a Syrian anti-aircraft battery that had launched a missile toward an IDF fighter jet conducting a routine mission within Israeli airspace.

These events have raised concerns in Jerusalem that Syria’s patron, Iran, is attempting to raise tensions with Israel amid an intensifying dispute with Washington. President Donald Trump has beefed up the US military presence in the Middle East following attacks attributed to the Islamic Republic and its Shi’ite proxies against Saudi assets, including drone strikes deep within the kingdom and the targeting of shipping vessels off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

This comes after the White House in April ended a sanctions waiver program that had allowed numerous countries to continue purchasing Iranian crude. As a result, Tehran’s oil exports are in free-fall, placing additional strain on the mullahs – who might be sending a message that the outbreak of war with the U.S. would have wider consequences, including Israel finding itself directly in the crosshairs.

The diplomatic noose also appears to be tightening around the Iranian regime’s neck, with Saudi Arabia having convened in the past few days three separate emergency summits focusing primarily on Tehran’s “malign” activities in the region. Saudi King Salman blamed the “escalation” on the failure of Arab and European countries to take decisive, deterrent action against the Islamic Republic.

As regards this week’s attacks, “the Syrians and, presumably, the Iranians are probing the limits of their [freedom of action] by measuring Israel’s response, which in this case was very swift and targeted,” Efraim Halevy, former Mossad director and past head of the Israeli National Security Council, told The Media Line.

“Ever since the Iranians settled down in Syria, there has been a potential for escalation, which is part of an ongoing situation that has its hazards for both sides,” he said.

“Generally speaking, the [impetus] for what is happening is an effort by the Iranians and Syrians to enhance their capabilities, and the Israelis are trying to curb this,” Halevy continued. “Whether this is related to occurrences in the Gulf, it is not necessarily wise to make that immediate connection. While this could lead to something much larger, it is too early to say, especially whether the die has been cast with respect to a U.S.-Iranian conflict.”

In this respect, it is worthwhile nothing that Iranian forces have in the past been more aggressive in directly targeting Israel. Most notably, members of Iran’s elite Quds force in May 2018 fired 20 projectiles toward Israel, most of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system.

This, in turn, came a few months after the IDF destroyed an explosives-laden Iranian drone that had penetrated Israeli airspace, following which the IDF conducted massive aerial assaults in Syria. In the subsequent exchange, regime forces downed an F-16 fighter jet, which crashed in northern Israel.

“It is important to understand that the effort of Iran and Hizbullah to establish a new front [against Israel] in the Golan Heights is not a surprise. It began immediately following the 2006 war with Lebanon,” Gershon Hacohen, a retired general who headed the IDF’s Northern Command, and presently a senior fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line.

“Accordingly, Israel has undertaken a lot of missions in Syria, as its longstanding policy has been to punish the sovereign power from which attacks are [launched]. The goal is to force countries to do their best to prevent these occurrences,” Hacohen said.

“This has been pretty effective,” he elaborated, “although Israel always retains flexibility and its actions change on a daily basis in order to uphold ‘redlines’ and maintain stability.”

Indeed, the “war-between-wars” the Jewish state and the Islamic Republic are engaged in is continuously evolving and currently extends far beyond developments in Syria. This includes, for example, covert sabotage operations by both sides, such as alleged cyber-attacks. This was the case with the Stuxnet computer virus, attributed to both Israel and the United States, which earlier this decade crippled Iran’s nuclear program. More recently, the Mossad recovered from Tehran thousands of files proving the regime had conducted research and tests geared toward producing atomic arms.

Dima Khayat, a Damascus-based political analyst, believes that “Israel has been hiding behind the [power of the] U.S.” and that “Gulf states are so worried about Iran that they, too, are siding with [President Donald Trump].”

She also suggested that Israeli strikes in Syria were, at least in part, a calculated move by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to shift focus away from his “bad domestic situation.”

Indeed, a broader examination of the geopolitical reality shows just how complex the situation is, with Sunni nations already waging proxy battles against Iran in theaters such as Yemen and Iraq, which, along with Qatar, are ostensible US allies that nevertheless remain closely aligned with Tehran.

While the Islamic Republic appears to be holding its own for now, US pressure on the mullahs, in the form of a widening campaign to curb their adventurism and potential nuclearization, may prompt them to raise the stakes by using Syria as a staging ground for taking their growing frustration out on Israel.

(Mohammad Al-Kassim contributed to this report)

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