A simmering conflict between Israel and Iran escalated overnight when Israeli jets struck dozens of Iranian targets in neighboring Syria.
The strikes came after what the Israeli military described as an Iranian rocket attack against its forces in the Golan Heights.
The Israelis said it was Iran’s first direct rocket attack against Israeli targets.
By Thursday morning, the Israeli Air Force had destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, according to Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman.
Why is Iran in Syria?
Iran is one of the most powerful backers of Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. It first intervened in the war to help defend Assad against Syrian rebels and later helped Syrian government forces against the Islamic State.
Iran has taken advantage of the chaos of Syria’s war to build a substantial military infrastructure there. It has built and trained large Shiite militias with thousands of fighters and sent advisers from its powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps to Syrian military bases.
Even though the Syrian rebels have steadily lost ground and no clear threats to Assad’s rule remain, Iran and its allies have stayed in Syria, shifting their focus to creating a military infrastructure there that Israel sees as a threat.
Iran continues to train and equip fighters while strengthening ties with its Shiite allies in Iraq and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon in hopes of building a united front in the event of a new war.
“The fundamental reason why Syria has become a battleground is because of the Islamic Republic’s declared ideology and strategy since 1979 of fighting Israel and its supporters,” said Amir Toumaj, a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which takes a hawkish stance on Iran.
“Prior to 1979, Iran and Israel were allies. Iranians have no material stake in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”
When Iran escalated its intervention in Syria to back up Assad, it gradually brought in heavy equipment such as the armed drone that Israel said crossed into its airspace in February.
“Right now, thanks to Russian military intervention, Assad is secured, though pockets of insurgents remain. So the Islamic Republic can afford to lessen investment against insurgents and focus more on Israel,” Toumaj said.
“The strategy is to make Syria into a viable front, like southern Lebanon, for both offensive and defence purposes, should another major war break out between Hezbollah and Israel. Iran has also tried to bring in defensive assets to Syria such as Tor air defence system, which Israel has struck to prevent.”
How has Israel responded?
Israel has launched scores of airstrikes on Syria to try to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, according to Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
The Israeli government rarely confirms individual strikes, and the Syrian government and Hezbollah do not always acknowledge when they have been hit. But last August, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the departing commander of the Israeli Air Force, said Israel had launched nearly 100 strikes on convoys since 2012. But unlike Russia and Iran, Israel has done little to sway the outcome of Syria’s civil war.
“It didn’t have a horse in that race, feeling no love for Assad, but fearing the chaos that might follow him,” Sachs said. “Now, with the victory of the Assad-Iran side, Iran’s main spoils is a long-term military presence in Syria, entrenching it in the country and linking it to Lebanon.
This is something Israel will not accept. It now fears the current trend in Syria, with growing Iranian presence, and so it has a strong incentive to stop things now before Iran gets further entrenched.”
Was Trump’s announcement a factor in the new fighting?
The conflict between Israel and Iran escalated days after President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from a 2015 multinational nuclear deal with Tehran. Israel had railed against the agreement since before its inception and Mr Trump had campaigned on the promise of withdrawing from it.
The concern now is that the shadow war Israel and Iran have been waging for years, most recently in Syria under the cover of the civil war there, has now burst into the open.
“It’s not a proxy war. It’s a direct war and that’s what makes it particularly dangerous,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel.
“Israel and Iran have been in a cold war for maybe 20 years now, but now it’s out in the open: direct, kinetic engagement between the forces, with Iranian casualties mounting. The potential for escalation is much greater now than before.”
He said Mr Trump’s announcement might not have helped, but the stage for the conflict was set earlier this year. Iran pushed allied militias toward the Golan Heights and moved rockets and rocket production into Syria to better supply Hezbollah with more accurate weaponry. Iran also installed air-defense systems that can reach into Israel.
What happens now?
Sachs said fighting between Iran and Israel in Syria is likely to continue.
“This back and forth — an Iranian attack on Israeli posts on the Golan and a widespread Israeli response against numerous Iranian targets in Syria — was not a one-off flare-up or a case of hot heads prevailing,” Sachs said. “This is part of a structural conflict unfolding between Israel and Iran in Syria.”
He added: “Both sides will test each other’s limits — and Israel’s strict limits were visibly clear in this strike. Iran will now feel the need to react, and push back. Iran is not likely to give up on its goals in Syria after expending so much effort in the civil war there. They may even try to bring Lebanon’s Hezbollah into the fray at some point. And Israel is certainly not going to back down from stopping the Iranian entrenchment.”
Indyk called the tensions “a car with an accelerator and no brake.” Asked where the situation goes from here, he replied: “Only to a bad place.”
The worst-case scenario, he said, is that the conflict spreads to Lebanon and Hezbollah decides to launch rockets into Israel from there and Israel responds as it has to the attacks from Syria.
“It’s in Israel’s interest to keep the conflict in Syria, where Israel has an overwhelming advantage,” Indyk said. “Iran may look elsewhere, where they have more leverage, and that includes terrorist activity.”