It will be wrong to assume that Iran will give up its strategic objectives because of the Israeli response, but it will have to adjust their implementation to the concerns and interests of other parties. The two Israeli operations, in February and in May, can be described as “buying time” medicine, allowing Israel and Iran to consider their next steps, but also enabling third parties, primarily Russia, to exert their influence in order to avoid the next direct confrontation between Israel and Iran.
The confrontation between Iran and Israel on the Syrian territory escalated into a new phase during the night of May 10, 2018. Israel announced that following rockets launched from Syria by the Iranian Al Quds force, Israeli jets attacked scores of Iranian targets in Syria such as intelligence and logistic sites of the Al Quds force including arms depot at Damascus international airport. The rockets launcher was destroyed as well.
Al Quds is an Iranian strike force, part of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, with most of its missions dedicated to implementing Iranian tactical and strategic goals in the Middle East. Its involvement in anti-Israeli activities in Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip started soon after its establishment during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. The presence and operations of Al Quds Force have been monitored by Israel, which reached a conclusion that Iran has in recent months moved to a new phase in its Syrian strategy. For a long period, its activities were confined to sending weapons, deploying all kinds of mercenaries all over Syria, including in areas close to the Syrian-Israeli border on the Golan Heights. Once ISIS was militarily defeated, it became important for Tehran to be part of molding the future political structure in Syria and establish a permanent base there. Such a base would also serve its strategic ambition of having a contiguous corridor stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean. The new political and military phase in the Iranian approach to Syria began to resemble the Iranian build-up in Lebanon, though the political and demographic circumstances are clearly much different. Israel has found itself in an intolerable situation, confronted with an Iranian proxy, the Hezbollah, armed to the teeth, in Lebanon and an Iranian expeditionary force permanently deployed in Syria.
These developments were transparent, clear and known to all actors in the Syrian arena. Israel has been sending warning messages on the Iranian build-up for months. The Iranian leadership, known to be conducting skillfully short and long-term policies, could not have misinterpreted the Israeli threat perceptions, concerns and even calculates and anticipates the possible Israeli responses.
It is therefore puzzling to watch the Iranian actual conduct which has been posing immediate and concrete security challenges forcing Israel to take action. On February 10, an Al Quds-launched drone penetrated Israeli airspace and three months later rockets launched by the same force were aimed at Israeli positions on the border. Iranian decisions concerning Israel are taken in Tehran. Even the powerful Al Quds commander Qassem Suleimani has to get approval for actions which might drag Iran into a major confrontation while the Iranian leadership has to handle almost existential issues of the JCPOA future and domestic unrest. Could it have been an error of judgment in Tehran, which does not have the capabilities to confront Israel on the Syrian front? The Israeli reaction on May 10 had nothing to do with the United States’ pulling out of the nuclear deal though it can be assumed that in calibrating its response Israel took into account the current Iranian constraints. Both sides seem to be reluctant to embark on a large-scale military duel but have to be extremely careful to avoid misreading and misjudging each other.
It will be wrong to assume that Iran will give up its strategic objectives and plans because of the Israeli response, but it will have to adjust their implementation to the concerns and interests of other parties. From that point of view, the two Israeli operations, in February and in May, can be described as “buying time” medicine, allowing Israel and Iran to consider their next steps, but also enabling third parties, primarily Russia, to exert their influence in order to avoid the next direct confrontation between Israel and Iran. The significance of the Putin-Netanyahu meeting just hours before the events on May 10 cannot and should not be underestimated by all parties concerned. In the months to come the events on May 9-10, 2018 could be seen as ushering in a new phase in solving the Syrian cube or at least, the Iranian-Russian-Israeli face of it.