The US withdrawal from the JCPOA “Iran Deal” on 10 May appeared to have triggered an immediate response as the Israeli military accused Iran's Quds force of firing 20 rockets from Syria at Golan posts, some of which were intercepted by the Iron Dome system.
Despite decades of animosity and rhetoric this appeared to be the first time Israel (albeit the occupied Golan Heights) had been directly hit by Iranian action. The Israeli response was swift and seemingly decisive; jets struck “almost all of Iran's military infrastructure in Syria” following the Iranian rocket attack.
This exchange of violence has been followed by a pause as the world waits to see whether we’re entering a new phase of conflict between these two adversaries or whether things will revert to the previous status quo.
War, it was once famously said by Carl von Clausewitz the Prussian General and military theorist, “is the continuation of politics by other means." Israel and Iran have been communicating with violence for years, but this deadly dance has avoided overt direct confrontation to date.
Instead, despite Iran previously threatening to ‘annihilate’ Israel, most of the actual violence has occurred through proxies. Whilst Hezbollah was the key channel during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1980s, today the collapse of the State in Syria has brought Iranian influence eye to eye with Israel.
Israel in response has waged a semi-covert campaign against Iranian and Hezbollah military assets in Syria over the past seven years. In January Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained that Israel’s policy was to stop Hezbollah moving “game-changing weapons” out of Syria into Lebanon. “We back it [the policy] up as necessary with action,” he added. Israel had carried out more than 100 air strikes against Syrian Army and Hezbollah arms depots and military facilities before the latest escalation.
The latest escalation represents the biggest series of Israeli military actions in Syria since the 1973 War. What is more, unlike the smoke and mirrors that have surrounded many of their strikes in the past, this one was fully acknowledged and came with a warning that Iran had ‘crossed a red line’.
Whilst a further escalation around the Golan Heights is not necessarily likely, the threat of violence has already seen tourist numbers fall off a cliff and residents instructed to remain close to bomb shelters. More likely is that Iran dials up the use of its proxies to target Israeli assets. This would see the world as a battlefield and potentially Israeli embassies or nationals at risk, whilst the Lebanon-Israel front is worth keeping a close eye on.
Following Hezbollah’s strong showing in the Lebanese elections on 6 May, Israel’s Defence Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, described the group as in “complete control” of the country and warned that any attacks against Israel could legitimately see a response against the entirety of the country. Memories of the 2006 confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah are still raw when it comes to the levels of death and destruction accumulated in a 34-day period; however, the unresolved nature of these disputes mean that future conflict is always a strong possibility.
Meanwhile Iran has allies and influence in the Gaza Strip where Friday protests against the continued blockade have seen over 40 Palestinians killed and tensions rise ahead of the planned opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
Put simply, the combination of potential Iranian responses in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Palestine put a region already struggling under the weight of conflict under even more stress.
De-escalation is sorely needed, but with the Trump administration pouring fuel on the situation, with the Europeans desperately trying to patch up the fallout from the JCPOA, and with the United Nations Security Council divided and battered from vetoes around the Syria conflict, it’s not clear where it will come from.
Instead leaders in Israel and Iran will have to navigate their own way away from the precipice. The Syrian regime responded to events by warning that the "direct confrontation... signals the start of a new phase of the war on Syria". More overt conflict between Iran and Israel may still focus on war weary Syria, where the two sides will balance strong rhetoric and a desire to avoid being seen as weak or having backed down in the face of the other. Iran and Israel are already at war, but it is likely to remain one fought in other peoples’ countries.
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