Tensions have escalated at a frightening pace between Iran and Israel in the three days since President Donald Trump said he was pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal.
Although Israel has struck Iranian targets in Syria several times in the past, Trump’s announcement to leave the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) earlier this week has led Israel to intensify its assault. On Tuesday, Israel struck Iranian troops in Syria who back President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in their fight against rebel groups and the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
As it had said it would, Iran finally retaliated on Wednesday. By early Thursday, Israel returned fire and, as the Associated Press reported on Friday, it called on the U.N. Security Council to condemn Iran’s strikes.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman accused Israel of attacking Syria under “fabricated and baseless excuses,” breaching Syria’s sovereignty.
Worried about a new full-fledged war in the region between Iran and Israel, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to call for an immediate halt to “all hostile acts” after Israel and Iranian forces traded missile strikes in Syria and at the Golan Heights border.
Iran has been active in Syria since the start of the uprising in 2011, which led to the horrific civil war that continues to play out today. So why are things escalating now?
The answer, in a nutshell, is: Donald Trump.
“I think it was just opportunity because of the Trump announcement on the JCPOA,” said Hayat Alvi, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, whose views do not reflect those of the U.S. War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.
“It’s almost as though [Israel] is saying, ‘Now that that announcement is made and we know that Iran is supporting Hezbollah … that it’s fair game to hit Iran inside Syria,’” Alvi told ThinkProgress, referring to the largely Shia Lebanese force present in Syria and fighting alongside Iran and Russia in support of Assad’s troops.
Overall, though, she said there’s a lack of clarity about what’s going on given that there have been periodic skirmishes in the Golan region in the past.
It does seem that Israel might be seeking this opportunity to subvert the upper hand recently gained by Iranian and Syrian forces against rebel strongholds around Damascus.
“This might be prime timing, with the Trump announcement, to try and undermine that leverage … because, clearly, they’ve crushed a lot of their opposition in Syria,” said Alvi.
Iran’s response too, is timed to President Trump’s decision.
“Donald Trump’s decision to leave the Iran nuclear deal has freed Iran to retaliate for the scores of Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria over the past few years,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
“This is a dangerous moment and it will take real restraint on both sides to keep this from escalating into a major conflict,” she told ThinkProgress by email.
It seems, though, that having a stable Syria as a neighbor would be more important to Israel than any short-term goal achieved in striking Iranian forces — who, for better or worse, are fighting ISIS and other extremists groups.
Indeed, calling this a bit of a “head-scratching moment,” Alvi points out that the beneficiaries of the Israeli strikes on Iran in Syria would be largely be Sunni militants. For Israel, though, she said it’s “really hard to pick a dog in this fight.”
“Almost every single entity [in Syria], whether it’s a Sunni militia or the Assad regime, or Hezbollah, or Iran, they’re all collectively, and individually, speaking anti-Israel,” said Alvi.
Which might be why Israel has waited as long as it has, watching its enemies killing each other off.
“Israel has been profiting from the chaos in Syria for the past seven years — watching Sunni fundamentalists battle Assad and Iranian-backed forces. Israel has enormous military superiority and can hit anything it chooses,” said Slavin.
“But it does have to worry about a permanent large Iranian military presence in Syria and the potential for it turning into another Lebanon, with 100,000 rockets poised to hit Israel,” she said, adding, “So the Israelis have decided to make it clear to Iran that its presence in Syria must be limited. This is also a safer bet now that Assad has largely retaken control over the country.”
Even as Israel strains against Iran and Hezbollah having any kind of permanent military presence in Syria, its success there might depend on a major player who at the moment, remains an X-factor: Russia.
Russia has publicly denounced Trump’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA and has proven itself to be an ally of Iran, both in Syria and on the U.N. Security Council. But, Alvi cautions, there’s little clarity on what Putin’s calculus is behind the scenes.
“He’s probably weighing the pros and cons of Russian, wholehearted support for Iran, and, by default, the Assad regime,” she said.