National Security

Israel, Syria, Iran and the Middle East Chess Match

With recent airstrikes against Syrian weapons facilities, Israel fires a shot across the bow of Iran too.

Todd Johnson · Sep. 19, 2017

While many Americans have been consumed over the last couple of weeks with the coverage of stories pertaining to either Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, there was a noteworthy event that took place in the Middle East. It didn’t receive a lot of coverage, but it has the potential to inflame diplomatic relations across the region.

It was reported without much fanfare on Sept. 7 that the Israeli Air Force launched several airstrikes into a Syrian military compound around Masyaf, reputedly a warehouse for short and mid-range missiles, as well as a home for the development of chemical weapons. The strikes, neither confirmed nor denied by Israeli officials, mark a significant milestone as they represent a ratcheting up of operations against the Syrian government and its partners, primarily Iran.

Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, once seen as international public enemy number one following its use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, is now on the verge of defeating Islamic State forces. The head of the Russian army in Syria, a staunch ally of Assad for many years, said as much in an interview with a British newspaper over the weekend. This radical shift in fortunes for Assad is one of the main reasons for the Israeli attack earlier this month and is seen as a preemptive strike by many military experts.

And who can blame the Israeli government for being concerned?

Two of Assad’s main allies in the fight against the Islamic State, other than Russia, have been Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite group considered by the United States to be a terrorist organization. Iran has provided weapons and political support to Hezbollah for many years, and most recently, supplied numerous resources to it in its fight against the Islamic State.

With the impending defeat of the Islamic State in both Lebanon and Syria, Iran has gained a lot of credibility among certain sectors of the Levant and it is anxious to build upon these successes.

Indicators of this long-term strategy include signing deals with Syria to rebuild the latter’s power grid as well as creating a mobile telephony license and right to build a new network. These enterprises will not only provide some badly needed revenue back to Iran but, more important, they will enable the Iranian government to extend its sphere of influence in the region. After all, regional hegemony is Iran’s strategic goal.

Which leads back to the Israeli strikes of Sept. 7. The aerial attacks against Syrian infrastructure were just as much a shot across the bow of Iran as they were against the Assad regime.

On numerous occasions, most recently on Monday, the Hassan Rouhani-led government of Iran has threatened military action against Israel, and the Jewish state is getting tired of being in the crosshairs — hence its actions earlier in the month.

The threat of a proxy or full tilt conflict between Iran and Israel continues to metastasize and the Trump administration has been quiet about the situation for too long. It’s expected that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address his concerns about Iran at the United Nations later today, and it’s no secret that he wants the United States to take a more active role in thwarting Iran’s influence in the Middle East. We’ll also see what Trump himself has to say in his first address to the UN.

While President Trump may have no desire to become more involved in the region, he has little choice. Trump and his national security and diplomatic teams must craft a strategy to counter Iran. The price of inactivity is too high and the world will become a more dangerous place if Iran can spread its tentacles of influence.

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