War and Civil War in Syria


For the third time this year, Israel was able to carry out air strikes in Syria earlier this month without prompting an immediate military response. The reactions of all parties directly affected—Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah—indicated little appetite for a conflict with Israel. This should be of little comfort to US policymakers and the international community, however. Although some wars are deliberately planned and started, they can also easily be sparked by miscalculation, or by a party sensing it has little choice but to respond to a provocation, however reluctantly. The conflict in Syria, already a proxy war, is increasingly likely to escalate into a war involving Israel, Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Amid conflicting claims of chemical weapons use, deepening Hezbollah involvement in Syria, repeated Israeli air strikes, the movement of heavy weaponry through Syrian territory, and the general fog of war, the potential for miscalculation and an ensuing regional conflict is large indeed and will only grow. 

Israeli officials speaking off-the-record claimed the attacks targeted strategic weaponry from Iran en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon—possibly Fateh 110 surface-to-surface missiles. The claims are credible, and destroying the missiles before they reached Lebanon would be in line with the Israeli doctrine of preventing Hezbollah from acquiring sophisticated weapons. If successfully transferred across the border, the Fateh 110’s relatively high accuracy, payload, and range would significantly increase Hezbollah’s missile capability. The attacks themselves are therefore not surprising, nor are they particularly significant given Israel’s record of carrying out air strikes against perceived security threats in Syria. What is notable, however, is what the attacks and ensuing reactions reveal about the calculations of the many regional players affected by the Syrian civil war.  

Iran’s decision to move such weapons into Lebanon despite the likelihood of interception by Israel may indicate it perceives a growing risk of an Israeli attack on Hezbollah in Lebanon, presumably to take advantage of the weakening of the Syrian regime. Iran may well be preparing Hezbollah for what it sees as an inevitable war. It could also indicate Iranian worries that, as the Syrian regime’s hold on its territory weakens, Iran’s ability to move weapons into Lebanon through Syria will be jeopardized and the window to transport its hardware is narrowing. 

For its part, the Syrian regime has been embarrassed by yet another failure to secure its territory against Israel. What is noteworthy is how little control Syria appears to exercise over developments within its borders. The decision to move heavy weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah would have been an Iranian one. That Iran is willing to expose Syria to repeated attacks to secure its wider geopolitical interests is evidence of how much Syria depends on Iranian finances, military support, and goodwill—and how much this has deepened since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.  

It appears that Iran does not perceive Israeli attacks as sufficient provocation for war, despite the possibility that Iranian personnel accompanying the weapons may have been among the casualties. Following the air strikes, Iran stated that the Syrian military was experienced and capable enough to stand up to Israel without Iranian involvement. Yet the Syrian military has no such capability, even if it were not consumed with fighting a domestic insurgency. The Iranian statement was effectively an admission that as far as these air strikes are concerned, Syria is on its own. This makes sense given Iran’s priorities: to protect its asset Hezbollah, and provide financial and military support for the Syrian regime’s war on the rebels.  

Israel, on the other hand, continues to see the Syrian conflict in narrow security terms. This makes sense, since Israel has little ability to shape the outcome of fighting in Syria anyway, and is likely to view all the belligerents as more or less equally bad. In any case, its intervention in favor of any one side would immediately discredit that side, due to popular hostility toward Israel. Israel’s leadership appears to recognize this and has emphasized that the recent attacks were unrelated to the Syrian conflict, and that it does not seek a wider war with Syria. The Syrian regime’s accusation that the Israelis were acting to help the rebels was therefore rather disingenuous, albeit in line with its wider campaign to frame the rebellion as a foreign plot against Syria.  

For now, Syria’s civil war is consuming the energy and attention of the Syrian regime, Iran, Hezbollah, and opposition forces—and Israel appears unconcerned that its military actions might further destabilize Syria since it appears doomed to collapse in any case. Instability in Syria has also lowered Israel’s overall threshold for risks emanating from bordering countries, and perhaps increased the appeal of a more direct attack on Hezbollah in the near future. More worryingly, there is no guarantee that the next Israeli attack on Syria will not provoke a military reaction from Iran, Syria, or Hezbollah (however reluctant) to restore their credibility and deterrent against Israel.  

Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, and an increasingly cornered Syrian regime cannot dance around one another in this tight geography indefinitely while avoiding a full-scale war. 

The risk of a regional war is real and will persist as long as the stalemate in Syria does; the only way out is for the belligerents to negotiate a settlement or for one side to win. It is clear by now that hopes for a peaceful resolution were based on a fundamental misunderstanding or willful ignorance of basic truths about the Syrian regime, and the extent to which it had poisoned Syria’s politics. Thus far, the US administration has preferred to see or at least portray the Syrian civil war as a localized conflict, presumably because this lowers the pressure on the United States to intervene more decisively to counter Iran in Syria, or to hold Israel back from attacks like the recent air strikes. If the United States wants to prevent the civil war in Syria from escalating into a regional one, however, it will need to choose which side it supports, and act accordingly to tip the balance of forces in that side’s favor. 

Faysal Itani is a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. Photo Credit.

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