Amid the chaos of Syria, will Israel and Iran launch an all-out war?

Neither country will benefit from a new Middle East conflict, but unless they cease military clashes, such as those inside Syria last weekend, hopes of peace remain fragile

Tensions between Israel and Iran have hit a new high following last weekend’s unprecedented military clashes inside Syria. The fighting has intensified fears that the Middle East is heading for all-out war. But such alarming predictions assume both protagonists standing toe-to-toe, actuallywant to fight. Is this reallytrue?

Iran is portrayed as a wanton aggressor, especially by the Trump administration and the Saudis. It has steadily expanded its military presence in Syria since supporting Bashar al-Assad after 2011, deploying Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and its own Revolutionary Guards.

Its former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, permanently upped the ante in 2005 when he allegedly called for Israel to be “wiped off the map”. His exact words are disputed, but the sentiment behind them has not been convincingly repudiatedby Tehran. Many Israelis remain convinced that Iran poses an existential threat.

Emboldened by a belief that Assad is winning, Iran is turning its eyes, and guns, on Israel – or so Israeli leaders believe. Their “red lines” – forbidding a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria and the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah – are being ignored.

Israeli commanders are particularly exercised by Iran’s construction of an underground factory in Lebanon that will, they say, provide Hezbollah with long-range, precision missiles. There was talk last week of taking the fight to Iran, rather than waiting to be attacked – as happened in December, when the Israeli forces reportedly destroyed an Iranian-built military facility at al-Kiswah, near Damascus.

The temperature is certainly rising. Last weekend’s clashes saw several “firsts”. It was the first time Iran openly engaged Israel, sending a drone into its territory; the first time an Israel combat aircraft has been shot down since 1982; the first time Israel openly targeted Iranian assets in Syria – a command centre and missile batteries around Damascus.

But for all the fire and fury, Iran’s intentions remain opaque. The Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force in Syria commanded by the infamous Major-General Qassem Suleimani,has links to radical-conservative factions in Tehran that routinely threaten to “erase the Zionist entity”.

While sympathetic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, is usually obliged to retain some sort of balance with pragmatist factions represented by Hassan Rouhani, the popularly elected, two-term president. Recent street protests were a reminder that the cleric-led regime is vulnerable to pressure from within. The demonstrations were primarily about economic grievances, but Iran’s costly involvement in foreign conflicts such as Syria and Yemen is a sore point. A new regional war could be political suicide for the regime.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, front, is a pragmatic balance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, front, is a pragmatic balance to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Photograph: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iran’s leaders, right and left, know open conflict with Israel would give Trump the excuse he yearns for – to tear up the nuclear deal, reimpose swingeing sanctions, gang up with Saudi Arabia, and possibly order military intervention. Some in Iran would welcome a showdown with the Great Satan. Most would not.

Other members of the pro-Assad coalition would oppose a wider war. Russia is trying to extricate itself militarily and secure a peace settlement. It has no interest in provoking Israel. Indeed, it wasPresident Vladimir Putin called Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu last weekend to demand the air raids ceasebefore things got out of hand (and Russians in Damascus got hurt). Likewise, Assad is focused on eliminating remaining resistance in rebel holdouts such as Idlib and on reconstruction, not on opening a new western front. And Hezbollah bloodied in Syria, is said to be keener on fighting this year’s Lebanese elections than fighting the IDF head-on.

Does Israel want another war? Probably not. Other considerations aside, it is facing a political crisis over bribery allegations against Netanyahu. But as in Iran, there are hawks who relish a scrap. Israel has mounted more than 100 raids in Syria in 18 months and their frequency is growing.

The hawks cite Israel’s superiority in weaponry and other assets. Despite losing a combat aircraft last weekend, Major-General Amos Yadlin, a former chief of military intelligence, claimed victory. “Israel demonstrated excellent capabilities in defending its airspace ... and it established its ability to leave Damascus exposed after destroying major components of the regime’s air defence system,” he wrote.

Whether this is true or not, other factors militate against war. All-out conflict with Iran in Syria could quickly morph into a titanic three-front struggle with Lebanon and Gaza. It would be no use Israel looking for help from its secret new friends, the Saudis: hatred of Iran does not cancel out visceral enmity with Israel. And who would bet Israel’s future on meaningful, timely assistance from mercurial Trump? As in the past, Israel could be left to fight alone. And Iran is a different proposition from the Arab armies it has fought in the past. What it lacks in sophisticated weaponry, it makes up for in numbers and determination – as Saddam Hussein discovered during his ruinous 1980s war with Iran

For both countries, all-out war, right now, is a losing proposition. But if Iran refuses to leave Syria and continues to expand its military presence there, and if Israel continues its cross-border raids, something big, sooner or later, is going to blow.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Israel risks becoming the fall guy in Donald Trump’s ‘shadow war’ with Iran | Simon Tisdall
Benjamin Netanyahu is counting on fear of conflict with Iran to win crucial election votes

Simon Tisdall

31, Aug, 2019 @4:57 PM

Article image
The tricky triangle of Iran, Russia and Israel
On the complex regional chess board, Iran wants better relations with Moscow even as the Russians have extended their intelligence co-operation with Israel in Syria

Gareth Smyth for Tehran Bureau

25, Apr, 2016 @12:47 PM

Article image
Simon Tisdall | Will clashes over Gaza cause a wider Middle Eastern conflict?
Lebanon, Iran and other nations may now be drawn into a spiral of conflict

Simon Tisdall

31, Mar, 2018 @3:49 PM

Article image
‘We’re angry’: Israel tensions mount as army reservists threaten to refuse duty
Conflict over Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul judiciary is leading to new levels of civil disobedience – and potential security risks

Bethan McKernan in Jerusalem

29, Jul, 2023 @11:22 AM

Article image
Iran deal could shake up Middle East after generations of conflict
Nuclear deal with Iran presents chance of change in alliances and rivalries that have dominated the region's politics

Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor

30, Nov, 2013 @10:55 PM

Article image
Hawks in Iran and Israel agree: Biden’s bid to salvage nuclear deal must not succeed
With elections looming in both states, and hardliners out to ensure the collapse of the 2015 deal, time is running short for the US president to save it

Simon Tisdall

21, Feb, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Shadow warrior: Benjamin Netanyahu takes a dangerous gamble with Iran
Israel’s prime minister is creating a climate of fear and crisis as his best hope for holding on to power

Simon Tisdall

18, Apr, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Russia’s influence has risen but Iran is the real winner in Aleppo
Tehran’s help in securing Syria’s second city is much less to do with re-establishing state sovereignty than about asserting its own agenda

Martin Chulov in Beirut

17, Dec, 2016 @8:05 PM

Article image
Israel said to have used Covid vaccines as bargaining tool in Syria prisoner swap
Russia mediated deal in which Israeli woman was exchanged for two Syrian shepherds

Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem and Emma Graham-Harrison in London

20, Feb, 2021 @3:51 PM

Article image
Beirut suicide blasts raise tensions in Lebanon as Sunni militants target Iran

Iranian diplomat among at least 23 killed in bombings as role of Tehran and Hezbollah in Syrian war widens sectarian divide

Martin Chulov in Beirut and Saeed Kamali Dehghan

19, Nov, 2013 @7:50 PM