One miscalculation could lead to a major inter-state conflict in Syria

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Nowhere in the Middle East is more likely to see a major inter-state conflict than Syria. Thus far, the region’s major powers have all contributed to the war in Syria, but the actual fighting has been contained within its borders. Yet, as the Syrian-Syrian fight nears its last chapter, the inter-state tensions are dangerously high, as the incident of Sept. 17 highlights in spades.

On that day, Israel bombed a reported Iranian facility at the Syrian port of Latakia. In the wake of the bombing, Syrian anti-aircraft fire brought down a Russian military plane, killing 15 Russians. Given the number of air forces flying over Syria, it is remarkable this does not happen more often.

Since the beginning of 2017, Israel has taken action against supposed Iranian targets inside Syria more than 200 times. Until this September, complex and delicate deconfliction mechanisms between Israel and Russia had worked; much the same as US-Russian ones in eastern Syria had. The danger of the situation is highlighted by Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin havingspokenthree times since then, clearly testing their warm relationship.

Russia held Israel responsible, yet one has to question this, given that Moscow accepts it was Syrian forces that brought the plane down. The two sides dispute the amount of warning given — Russia claiming that it was given 60 seconds’ notice, Israel saying it was seven minutes. Israel also states that the plane was shot down 24 minutes after its F-16s bombed the site and were 200 kilometers away. It does highlight that Syrian forces on the ground could not identify friend from foe, and that the Russian-made S-200 system did not work, which is somewhat of an embarrassment for both Russia and Syria. As yet, Russian-designed anti-air defenses have not deterred Israeli forces at all and they can attack pretty much at will.

The Russian response was to supply Syria with its more advanced S-300 system. It will take time to integrate the three batteries of the S-300 and to train the Syrian operators, yet the intent is clear: Russia feels it has to restrict Israel’s freedom to operate in the skies of Syria, not least due to Syrian and Iranian pressures.

On the other hand, Israel remains equally determined. The new defenses might make Israeli leaders think twice and exercise more caution but, if Iran continues to build major military sites in Syria, transfer high-tech weapons to Hezbollah, or move forces close to the Israeli border, it will strike. In the case of Latakia, Israeli sources state that this facility was devoted to upgrading primitive Hezbollah rockets, making them more potent and accurate.

The face-off between Israel and Iran, which are backed by rival superpowers, is at its sharpest ever. One miscalculation, one misstep, and war will ensue.

Chris Doyle

Israel is alarmed at the 120,000 rockets it claims Hezbollah possesses. We do not know if Netanyahu was right in his UN General Assembly speech about the militant group havingweapons storage facilitieshidden deep in southern Beirut. It took three days before the Lebanese foreign minister showed diplomats around the area — more than enough time for Hezbollah to make a decent cover-up.

The face-off between Israel and Iran, which are backed by rival superpowers, is at its sharpest ever. One miscalculation, one misstep, and war will ensue.

Iran shows no sign of shrinking its military ambitions in Syria. Russia has thwarted this at certain junctures, even, according to Israeli sources, ensuring it did not get a naval facility on the Syrian coast. Israel fears a double front if Hezbollah and Iranian forces are deployed in Syria as well as Lebanon.

Any war would be frightening, and all sides might lose. For a long time, Israeli spokespeople have stated that defeating Hezbollah in Lebanon would require a huge onslaught, even in populated urban areas, particularly southern Beirut. The more potent, heavier of Hezbollah’s missiles cannot be stopped by Israel’s iron dome, which is designed for lighter, shorter range rockets. As yet, David’s Sling, Israel’s most advanced anti-missile system, is not fully operational, though it was used for the first time in July. Israeli urban areas and strategic assets would be well in range and vulnerable. This could include the offshore oil rig that is used to supply much of Israel’s electricity. Some Israeli strategists believe it is in their interest to fight now before Hezbollah’s arsenal is upgraded even further.

Iran can hardly crave a war. It wants to reap what rewards it can from its involvement in Syria; not just by developing military assets there but also in terms of business and lucrative real estate. It cannot win in a confrontation with Israel, even if it can certainly cause immense suffering. Iran will also wish to keep Hezbollah as its deterrent against Israel bombing Iran directly.

War is possible, even if not by design, not least if all sides calculate that their opponents will do everything to avoid a conflict. Key players must try to calm the atmosphere. Typically this would include the US but, in Syria, it has been increasingly peripheral and the Trump administration has hardly espoused the role of cool mediator. Russia has the most to gain by cooling matters and is well placed given its close relations with Israel and influence over Iran. The trouble is that it is hard to see how the status quo can be improved in the years ahead. Iran will always be seeking to expand its military presence and Israel will always take action to thwart it.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter University. Twitter: @Doylech

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