The Hidden Message of Iran’s Syria Strikes: A View From Israel

An unusual strategic event took place this week in the Middle East. For the second time in over a year, Iran fired ballistic missiles on targets in Syria, a country that borders Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who never misses an opportunity to respond in the strongest terms—usually within hours—to any Iranian testing of its ballistic missile capabilities, chose a relatively muted response.

In the early morning hours of October 1, Iran fired six medium-range ballistic missiles—Zolfaqar and Qiam classes with ranges of 468 – 500 miles (750 – 800 km)—from a base in the western city of Kermanshah on Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) targets in the Al Bukamal district of Syria, east of the Euphrates river. A follow-up Iranian attack on the ISIS targets was carried out using seven drone bombers.

The strikes were in retaliation for the September 22 terror attack on a military parade in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, which killed at least twenty-five people, including women and children.

Al Bukamal is ISIS’ last remaining stronghold in Syria. Iran had to consider the close proximity of US forces in the area, though the Pentagon didn’t receive an advanced warning. However, it was reported that a week earlier US intelligence noted movement of Iran’s mobile missile launchers. One can assume that the US shared this information with Israel.

The US military spokesman of the coalition forces in Syria confirmed that his forces “were in no danger” during the strikes which took place only miles (five km) from the US position. The Iranians succeeded in walking a very tight rope without tearing it.

This week’s strikes were a repeat performance of June 2017. Last year, Iran fired six Zolfaqar missiles on ISIS targets in the Deir Ezzur area of Syria in retaliation for twin terror attacks in Tehran.

The first Israeli reports were dramatic. This was because of an erroneous initial report that Iran used Shahab-3 missiles with a 800 miles (1,280 km) range, which would be capable of reaching targets within Israel. The official Iranian announcement that it fired Zolfaqar missiles with a much shorter range—which wouldn’t be capable of reaching Israel—immediately lowered the threat and fear threshold. 

In contrast to the intense preoccupation in Israel with Iran’s ballistic missiles during 2017, reactions to this week’s missiles were mild. Reports on the Iranian strikes in major Israeli newspapers—such as Ha’aretz, Yediot Aharonot, and Maariv—were relegated to the inner pages and limited to short informative summaries. Israeli reports on Iran that aren’t belligerent in tone are a bit surprising.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had just returned from the United Nations General Assembly with an aggressive speech focused mainly on Iran, chose to react to the strikes with relative restraint. Instead, the prime minister focused on reports from Iran that one of the missiles was inscribed with the words, “death to Israel.” This prompted Netanyahu to comment: “Iran’s attempt to tie Israel to the terrorist attack in southern Iran is ridiculous. The fact that ‘death to Israel’ was written on the missiles launched at Syria proves everything.”

Not a word was said about the Iranian threat which he is so fond of claiming, or the strategic meaning behind the firing of Iranian ballistic missiles on targets outside its own country. It’s worth noting that Netanyahu and the Israeli media used the term “terror attack” when discussing the incident in Ahvaz.

The Iranian decision to fire ballistic missiles was likely made by the highest political level. What may have made Iran’s strategic decision to fire ballistic missiles at another country easier is that both scenarios were a retaliation against clear aggression. From the Iranian perspective, this was merely a defensive action. Tehran wasn’t perceived as the initiator and the international community found it difficult to rebuff the defensive claim. This may in part explain the relatively moderate Israeli and US reactions.

The message of a defensive-deterrent use of conventional missiles comes to the forefront against the background of the intense diplomatic confrontation between Iran and the United States. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu view Iran’s testing of missiles that it carries out from time to time as a blatant violation of the JCPOA, though this is incorrect since  the tests aren’t part of the nuclear accord. They both insist that Tehran completely dismantle its ballistic missiles program.

A possible byproduct of the Iranian strikes may be that they will acclimatize the international community to Iran’s defensive use of ballistic missiles while scrupulously abiding by the JCPOA, which blocked its path to nuclear weapons and placed it under the most intrusive IAEA monitoring in history.

On a strategic level, it seems Israeli deterrence in Syria works and that Tehran isn’t eager to get caught up in an all-out confrontation with Israel. The Iranian firing of missiles on Syria could be seen as a form of communication by which non-verbal messages are transmitted to the other side. According to this interpretation, the strikes were carried out in a way that wouldn’t be perceived by Israel as a threat against Israeli targets, despite the “death to Israel” messaging. 

Tehran signaled this by using missiles that don’t have the range to hit Israel. This was also done by choosing a launching site that didn’t put Israel within range of the strikes. In both cases, the launches from Kermanshah to Syria meant that the missiles were on a geographic line to the Mediterranean Sea north of Syria—not on a direct line continuing southward to Israel. This reflects an internal syntax of strategy.

Nevertheless, the message are the missiles themselves. No longer are the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps missile testing—they are now firing on another state. Iran has crossed an invisible but very meaningful line.

Shemuel Meir is currently a strategic blogger for Ha’aretz focusing mainly on nuclear issues, Iran, and a Middle East Nuclear Free Zone. He is a former IDF analyst and Tel Aviv University researcher. Follow him on Twitter: @ShemuelMeir.

Image: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launches medium-range ballistic missiles from Kermanshah, Iran on October 1, 2018 (Fars News Agency)