Rockets Fill Middle East’s Skies as Vienna Nuclear Talks Continue
Attacks in southern and western Syria attributed to Israel, and a series of attacks against bases hosting Americans in Iraq have been carried out as Iran and the world powers meet.
Two airstrikes over two nights in Syria – one near the city of Latakia in the west of the country, which left one civilian dead and six injured, and a second in the border area of Quneitra – were attributed to Israel by the Syrian state news agency Sana.
Israel hasn’t confirmed its involvement in the attacks; however, Israel is reported to have carried out dozens of airstrikes in Syria as part of its fight against Iranian entrenchment on its borders.
Elsewhere in the region, bases with an American presence in Iraq were attacked three times since the beginning of the week. On Sunday, an airbase within Baghdad International Airport, which hosts troops belonging to the US-led coalition, was reportedly attacked. A day later, Balad Air Base located to the north of Baghdad, home to American contractors, was the target of a rocket attack. And on Tuesday, Ain al-Asad air base, which houses American troops, was the target when two rockets landed within the base’s boundaries. No casualties were reported.
The attacks on Americans on Iraqi soil are normally attributed to Iranian-backed militias active in Iraq. The latest attacks come as the US and the Islamic Republic are negotiating in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Talks in the European capital that first began early last month are intended to bring Iran and the US back into compliance with the deal, which was signed in 2015, and constructed to limit and supervise Tehran’s nuclear program. In return, harsh economic sanctions placed on Iran were lifted. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the agreement, which he had criticized harshly, and reinstated the sanctions. President Joe Biden promised to return to the deal, claiming that it serves the US and its interests, but reviving it has proved difficult.
Now, however, sources close to the negotiations are expressing cautious optimism.
Russian representative Mikhail Ulyanov said in a tweet on Saturday, after the last session of talks concluded, that “participants noted today the indisputable progress made at the Vienna talks on restoration of the nuclear deal.”
Iran, with its economy crushed by sanctions, is pushing for a quick return to the agreement. At the same time, the revival faces vocal opposition from Israel. Jerusalem considers Iran and its nuclear program an existential threat to the country. Indeed, Iranian officials have repeatedly expressed their hope and stated goal that Israel be annihilated. The Jewish state was a central opponent of the 2015 agreement because of doubts about its efficacy, and Israeli officials are now expressing grave concern about the US intention to return to the deal.
A series of recent attacks on Iranian targets, most notably an explosion at the Iranian nuclear site in Natanz, have been attributed to Israel and its desire to influence the Vienna talks.
Zvi Magen, former Israeli ambassador to Russia and a senior research fellow at The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that he thinks the Tuesday night attack in western Syria “is connected without a doubt” to the negotiations.
Magen connects the whole array of alleged Israeli operations to the talks, saying that “the connection is always there … throughout the process in Vienna, Israel has been sending a series of messages that it will decide for itself what its interests are, when it is in danger and how it reacts.”
Israel may be telling negotiators that it will protect its interests itself, or it is possibly trying to make sure that clauses it deems important find their way into the final agreement; “it could be either or both,” according to Magen.
Notably, the latest attack in Syria was close to a central Russian air base there, the Khmeimim air base. “Israel isn’t enthusiastic about attacking in that area,” Magen said, because it prefers to avoid unnecessary clashes with the Russians. In this case, the expert estimates that the Russians were notified in advance of the intended attack, which may actually coincide with Moscow’s interests. Tehran, Ankara and Moscow are finding their combined presence in Syria a little too tight for comfort, and are vying for dominance in the country devastated by a decade-long civil war.
The targets of the airstrike – if it was indeed carried out by Israel – are likely Iranian. “What Israel has been attacking in recent times are Iranian targets, with an emphasis on weapons stashes and manufacturing sites,” Magen said. To be even more specific, Israel is aiming at an Iranian enterprise that seeks to upgrade the accuracy of missiles that will most probably end up in the hands of Hizbullah.
Throughout the process in Vienna, Israel has been sending a series of messages that it will decide for itself what its interests are, when it is in danger and how it reacts
Dr. Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow with Middle East and North Africa Program of the London-based Chatham House, a think tank, believes that the operation in Syria should be seen as separate from Israel’s opposition to the deal and was likely motivated by threats it identifies to its north.
“Israel will likely continue to act independently and strike against assets in Syria, which it considers to pose a direct threat to its own security,” Quilliam told The Media Line. He notes, however, that we may see an increase in the number of Israeli attacks “before the US reenters the JCPOA and Iran returns to compliance, so it can ease off for a few months afterwards and not risk placing further strain on its relations with Washington.”
The British expert believes that Israel’s message also is intended for other parties.
“The Israelis were likely sending a signal that whilst they remain agnostic about the fate of Bashar al-Assad, they do not welcome recent moves made by Gulf Arab states to advance talks with the regime in a bid to lift Syria’s suspension from the Arab League,” he said. Israel wants its new friends in the Gulf to coordinate their future moves regarding Syria and its president. Recent reports point to a warming of ties between Riyadh and Damascus, for example.
Looking further east, however, Quilliam does see a connection between the timing of the recent rocket attacks on the American presence in Iraq, and the negotiations in the ritzy Grand Hotel Wien in Vienna.
“The timing of the attacks is likely intended to reinforce Tehran’s position at the negotiating table and also remind all negotiators that decisions rest elsewhere within the Iranian system and not in the hands of Zarif and his team,” Quilliam said. He adds that these attacks should also be understood within a larger context, which disconnects them from the talks, namely “an ongoing dynamic following the assassination of Revolutionary Guards Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani and Popular Mobilization Forces commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020.”
Negotiators are set to reconvene in Vienna on Friday, and it remains to be seen whether the sounds of blasts in the Middle East will travel far and carry into the halls of the European hotel.