Has Israel opened a new front in Syria’s war?
Iran’s reaction to latest deadly strikes to determine the length and intensity of confrontation, say analysts.
Israeli raids against alleged Iranian targets inside Syria have raised fears of a major confrontation in the Middle East.
Amid international calls for restraint and calm, Israeli officials said Thursday’s attacks were not aimed at opening a new front in Syria’s war, but analysts say much will depend on Iran’s response.
The Israeli military has said that its warplanes targeted intelligence, logistics, storage and vehicles in response to rocket fire targeting its forces in the occupied Golan Heights, which it blames on Iran.
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s defence minister, said the Israeli assault struck “almost all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria”, and added that Israel will desist from launching any further attacks.
“I hope we finished this chapter and everyone got the message,” he said, but warned that “if it rains on us [Israel], it will pour on them [Iran].”
Iran has not commented on the rocket fire.
The situation remains unclear, with an independent war monitor claiming the rockets followed a “first Israeli bombardment on the town of Baath” in Quneitra province.
Also on Tuesday, Syrian state media reported attacks on a military base in Kisweh, south of Damascus, and accused Israel of carrying out the raid.
The strikes on Kisweh came shortly after President Donald Trump announced US withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and resulted in the deaths of 15 people, eight of whom were Iranians, according to the war monitor.
Iranian forces based in Syria reportedly retaliated the next day, launching 20 rockets in the direction of the Israeli-occupied Syrian territory of Golan Heights.
The Israeli military accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and its Quds Force, headed by General Qassem Suleimani, of being behind the attack.
Analysts said the Israeli retaliation was meant to signal Tel Aviv’s resolve, without allowing the conflict spiral out of control.
“I don’t think Israel is interested in continuing a prolonged war with Iran because this might spill over to other theatres, including in Lebanon with Hezbollah, effectively making it a proxy war,” Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University, London, told Al Jazeera.
“Israel runs the risk, by doing what it did, that Iran will feel almost obliged and forced to retaliate again.
“That’s the danger when things like this start, you don’t know how and who’s going to stop. You know how it starts, but you don’t know how it will end.”
‘We’d like to stop’
Mekelberg said the message that Israel was trying to get across is that it was not interested in escalation.
By saying “we achieved our objectives, Israel is effectively saying ‘we’d like to stop'”, he said.
However, “the ball is now in the court of Iran.”
Ghanbar Naderi, an Iranian political analyst, said it was unlikely that Iran will pull back and relinquish all the gains it has made in Syria in recent years.
In Naderi’s view, the attacks on Iranian outposts are a last-ditch attempt by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, to save face as he struggles to accept the Syrian government and its Iranian backers’ successive victories.
“At the end of the day, this is a limited campaign in order to send the message that they have not lost the war.
“I think they have lost the war and should call it quits and allow Syria to reconstruct itself from scratch,” Naderi said.
Naderi, however, is unequivocal about Iran’s willingness and ability to retaliate in the event of future Israeli aggression.
“This is not the first time that Israel attacks Syria from the Golan Heights and certainly won’t be the last one,” he says.
“We are expecting more attacks in the coming weeks and months. But the simple fact is that Iran is going to stay in Syria.
“If Israel hits Syrian or Iranian forces, there will be retaliation. This is no longer the Syria of five or six years ago.”