Israel's airstrike campaign on Iranian targets carries a risk of war

Israel's airstrike campaign on Iranian targets carries a risk of war
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In the first four months of this year reports show that Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria have increased. These include targets across Syria, from Aleppo in the north to the Iraqi border in the south, a distance of around 310 miles. Although Israel does not take credit for most of the strikes, the Syrian government and U.S. officials have acknowledged them. A high-profile visit by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTreasury sanctions individuals, groups tied to Russian malign influence activities Navalny released from hospital after suspected poisoning Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers MORE to Israel on May 13 underpins how these strikes have become a “new normal,” considered neither controversial nor provocative. However, the question remains whether Israel’s strategy is working — and how long it can last. 

Israel’s decision to use frequent airstrikes in Syria was born of necessity during the Syrian civil war as threats emerged from the chaos of conflict. In 2015, an airstrike hit Jihad Mughniyeh, a key Hezbollah operative near the Golan Heights. More clandestine operations followed, the full extent of which was only hinted at when former Israel Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said more than 100 attacks were carried out by 2017. These were directed at preventing a war, Israel said, reducing Iran’s attempts to threaten Israel via Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE said Jerusalem would not allow Tehran to entrench its forces in Syria. 

Iran nevertheless continued to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria, which has threatened Israel with precision-guided rockets, and it continued to move drones, missiles and militias to Syria. Israel sought to discuss the concerns with Russia, which is allied with the Syrian regime. Although Russia and Iran are both allies of the Syrian regime, their goals may differ in Syria and Russia appeared to consent to keeping Iran away from Israel’s northern border. But Iran didn’t stay away for long, and by 2019, Israeli officials said more than 1,000 airstrikes had been carried out.

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The question for Israeli leaders and generals is whether the air war has had any effect. Early this month, Israeli officials pointed to a reduction in Iranian forces. But this “campaign between wars,” as Israel calls the Syrian airstrikes, may not have had the intended effect. James Jeffrey, the U.S. envoy to Syria, said on May 7 that Washington has not seen “any strategic Iranian commitment not to try to use Syria as both a second launching pad for long-range weapons against Israel and as a conduit … to provide Hezbollah more lethal and more modern precision-guided missiles.”

This means that, after years of airstrikes, this new normal of almost weekly raids may continue into the foreseeable future. The Syrian regime and Iran do not have air defenses capable of stopping the strikes, and neither appears to want a larger war with Israel. Russia has been content to watch from the sidelines, chiding Israel from time to time. The U.S. supports Israel’s campaign.

Jerusalem can’t take this support for granted. The window that enabled an unprecedented air campaign against Iran in Syria, without repercussions or escalation, will not be open forever. Eventually, a new U.S. administration, or pressure from Russia or more extreme voices in Iran, may lead to a reaction. And Israel likely doesn’t want to do this forever, either; each airstrike is complex and runs risks. In the past year there have been near-flashpoints, such as a strike on a Hezbollah drone team last August, strikes targeting a pro-Iranian Palestinian group in Damascus in November, and an April airstrike on a Hezbollah vehicle that led Hezbollah to cut holes in a security fence with Israel in retaliation. These incidents that threaten escalation have been increasing, suggesting that Israel’s “campaign between wars” threatens to become an actual war.

Rarely in history is a country afforded the opportunity to carry out airstrikes without a large conflict resulting. Jerusalem normalized that opportunity successfully in Syria to confront Iran. However, with each strike that Iran and Syria regime blame on Israel, their desire to retaliate grows — and with it, the chances for a greater conflict. 

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.