The evolving Iranian strategy in Syria: A looming conflict with Israel

The 13th Battalion of the Golani Brigade during a drill held in the Golan Heights in northern Israel. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Iran began its military involvement in Syria in 2011, at the outbreak of the civil war. Tehran’s immediate objective was to defeat the Syrian opposition militarily to save Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The maintenance of the Shia-Alawi-dominated regime in Damascus was key to the Islamic Republic’s long-term regional strategy, the creation of a contiguous Shia arc of influence in the region, linking Iran through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. The Syrian theater also witnessed changes to Iran’s traditional use of proxies, militias, and plausible deniability.

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force perfected its proxy doctrine during the fight in Syria, using asymmetric units as the main ground force but allowing the use of regular military units as support elements if needed. However, the Quds Force undermined and abandoned its own doctrine when it changed its strategy in Syria as victory over the opposition loomed. It began establishing permanent basing, which made its personnel, including the proxy militiamen, easy targets for Israel. The Quds Force also abandoned the doctrine when IRGC artillery units under its direct command fired rockets at Israeli front positions in the Golan, prompting massive retaliation from Israel against not only Iranian proxies and materiel, but also personnel.

Iran’s insistence on maintaining a major military presence in Syria could well put it on the brink of war on another front—with Israel on Syrian soil and beyond. This report by Scowcroft Center nonresident senior fellow Nader Uskowi explores the possibility for Iranian-Israeli conflict in Syria, as well as the way forward for the various actors involved there.