How will the Iran-Israel conflict play out in Syria?

Tehran has promised to retaliate against Israel but is focused in the meantime on diplomatic wins in the region.

Journalists report from the damage of a medieval citadel after an early morning Israeli airstrike in the capital city of Damascus
Israel has increasingly targeted alleged military sites run by Iran and its proxies in Syria. [File: Omar Sanadiki/AP Photo]

Tehran, Iran – Israel has ramped up its military strikes in Syria, but Iran may bide its time in responding and opt for a more calculated strategy that fits into its larger regional goals, analysts say.

Israel has increasingly targeted alleged military sites run by Iran and its proxies in Syria. It has carried out nine such attacks so far this year, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based war monitor.

The latest air attack was on Sunday in Homs province and it wounded at least five soldiers, according to the Syrian government.

A short time later, Israel said it shot down a drone that flew into the country from Syria.

Syria has denied that Tehran, which militarily backs President Bashar al-Assad, has an extensive military presence in the country.

Another attack on Friday killed two members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who were hailed by Iranian media and officials as “martyrs” who died fighting “terrorism”. Last month, the airport in Aleppo was knocked out of service in an Israeli strike.

Satellite image depicting damage at Aleppo's airport
A handout picture released by ImageSat International (ISI) on September 7, 2022, shows a satellite image depicting the damage at Aleppo airport in northern Syria following reported Israeli strikes [ImageSat International (ISI)/AFP]

The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Tehran reserves the right for a response at a time and place of its choosing while the government spokesman, Ali Bahadori Jahromi, tweeted that “terrorist actions will not go unanswered”.

At the same time, however, both Iran and Syria are taking steps to improve relations with their Arab neighbours, and because Iran has signalled it is still interested in talks with the West, its response to Israel might materialise over time, experts said.

Iran-Saudi Arabia normalisation

While the latest strikes are part of a pattern of escalation, an immediate and major escalation will be unlikely, according to Abdolrasool Divsallar, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank.

“I think Iran, knowing that it has hit a blow on the political side to the Israelis, will try to invest more on that side, which is basically Iran-Saudi Arabia normalisation,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the diplomatic rapprochement between the two regional powers last month.

“My understanding of bringing the news of the two martyrs to the public is that it also relates to the fact that they’re interested to build up on the anti-Israeli sentiment in the Arab world and the rest of the region and saying these killings will be responded to in the future,” he said.

Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Washington-based Quincy Institute, said he also believes the talks to restore Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers will play a role because Iran does not want a confrontation with the West.

“Iran has for the past year absorbed a lot of losses without proportionate retaliation, calculating that Israel’s strikes are a trap to bring about a major military confrontation to eliminate any chance of a nuclear agreement and detente with the West,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Given its normalisation with Saudi Arabia and the pressure it is under from China to lower tensions with Riyadh, it will be fascinating to see how that will translate into Iran’s Israel file,” Parsi said.

China brokered the deal last month that committed regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia to ending a seven-year diplomatic rift and reopening their diplomatic missions within two months.

The two countries’ foreign ministers agreed in a call on Sunday to meet within days to start implementing the deal, according to Iran’s foreign ministry.

Iran is also pursuing closer ties with other Arab states of the region, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is reportedly planning to invite al-Assad to an Arab League summit that Riyadh is hosting in May, effectively embracing Syria politically as the West and Israel continue to denounce the Syrian president.

‘Problems at home’

In the meantime, signs point to the pattern of escalation between Iran and Israel likely continuing, according to the analysts.

Divsallar said Tehran realises that the Israeli strikes may be related to “an Israeli failure to bring Iran to the centre of the regional threat perception” as diplomatic efforts between it and its Arab neighbours have improved. He said Iran, therefore, will look to keep its actions in a “gray zone” of asymmetrical, indirect responses.

“One main option for Iran is that they will increase their air defence assets in Syria to improve deterrence,” he said, adding that this could include a capability to hit Israeli jets in the future in addition to the current early warning systems that are thought to be in place in Syria.

The pro-Iran forces in Syria and pro-Iran Lebanese groups may also be involved, Divsallar said, but he pointed out that Israel’s key backer, the United States, is unlikely to further involve itself unless its bases or personnel inside Syria are attacked and suffer casualties.

“I’m not expecting too much tension to rise because I think the Iranians are a bit confident that they have a political win here, so they view these Israeli actions as a show of weakness and a failure on problems they have at home,” Divsallar said.

Parsi said heightened tensions with Iran may serve the short-term interests of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as it deals with protests against its judicial reforms and as Tehran seeks to re-engage the US on the nuclear file.

“Washington has no interest or desire for a confrontation with Iran, but its lack of willingness to push back sufficiently against Israeli escalation and unprovoked attacks by Iranian-supported militias may, nevertheless, drag the US into such a confrontation,” he said.

“Given the lack of clarity of Washington’s mission in Syria and its lack of congressional authority, the risks of American military presence in Syria clearly outweigh the benefits,” Parsi added.

Source: Al Jazeera