Caught in the middle

Bassel Oudat , Tuesday 16 Apr 2024

Bassel Oudat sums up the tense situation in Syria following Iran’s strike against Israel

Caught in the middle


It was a tense night for Syrians on 13 April, fearing their country would turn into an arena for the tit-for-tat revenge exchanges between Israel and Iran. The screeching of missiles and crack of explosions in Syrian skies made people jump and tense up further, even if they realised that those were the sounds of Iranian missiles being intercepted by Israeli air defences, as was reported on Syrian state media that night.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), some missiles launched from Syria were not fired by the Syrian army, but from the area southwest Damascus where pro-Iranian Lebanese Hizbullah are based. The state media did not mention them, the SOHR said, so as not to make things awkward for Iran or for the Syrian regime which had received promises from Iranian officials that there would be no targeting of Israel from Syrian territory.

Since Israel bombed an Iranian embassy building in Damascus on 1 April, killing seven commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), Damascus has been extra careful to avoid getting involved in the mutual recriminations and threats between Tehran and Tel Aviv. This was rather striking given the strategic nature of the Syrian-Iranian relationship. After the Iranian retaliatory strike against Israel, the Syrian Foreign Ministry released a statement expressing solidarity with Iran, supporting Iran’s right to self-defence, and reiterating the Syrian government’s condemnation of the Israeli strike against the Iranian embassy. But Syria took no steps to back these words in practice.

Syria, itself, sustained no damage from the exchange of missile fire overhead and Damascus International Airport resumed normal operations on Sunday morning. However, it is still unclear whether Israel will respond to the Iranian attack and, if so, whether that response will target Iran’s more vulnerable allies in the region, namely Syria.

The Iranian proxy in Lebanon, Hizbullah, praised the Iranian retaliatory strike as firm and unprecedented. Iran had “exercised its natural and legal right and acted on its pledge with consummate courage and wisdom,” the Lebanese-based resistance organisation stated. It further stressed that the Iranian operation had “achieved its precisely defined military objectives, despite the participation of the US, its international allies, and its regional instruments in helping Israel counter the blitz attack. The long term political and strategic goals of this great development will gradually become clear over time.”

Although calm has prevailed for several days, Syrians are still nervous because not only has Israel vowed to retaliate and its war cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his Defence Minister Yoav Galant and Benny Gantz, has been authorised to determine how to respond.

In the opinion of the Syrian political analyst Mustafa Al-Neimi, Syrian territory is likely to be an arena for that response. “There have been Israeli military intelligence movements recently,” he said, “Israel’s intelligence aircraft, Squadron 122, are on the move, patrolling the southern, central, and coastal areas of Syria. They have a constantly changing list of targets they monitor around the clock. On top of this they have the intelligence supplied by the Americans who conduct surveillance of the entire Eastern Mediterranean. Israel has already indicated that it receives a lot of US intelligence and logistical support regarding the positions of pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Lebanon.”

Regarding the Russian position on the Iranian retaliatory strike and the possible Israeli response, Nuaimi said, “I do not support the theory that Russia will defend Iran. Also, Russia is not pleased with Damascus’ silence on the missiles launched from Quneitra and southern Syria towards the occupied Golan. The missiles passed Russian military observation points, which could have been potentially embarrassing for Russia. Any suggestion that it gave the green light for those missiles to pass overhead could create problems with Israel, which Russia does not want. Moscow and Tel Aviv have generally friendly and cooperative relations, and are bound by defence agreements, such as those concluded by their defence advisers in 2019. This also means that Russian air defences would most likely not intercede if Israel decides to exact revenge against Iran inside Syria.”

Israel reported Iran’s regional allies had also fired drones and missiles into Israel on Saturday night. The Ansarallah (Houthi) Movement reportedly fired some missiles from Yemen and Hizbullah did the same from Lebanon. But no party in Syria has admitted to firing a drone or missile from Syrian territory, which further confirms Damascus’ desire to avoid a collision with Israel.

“Syria has missiles and drones at the T-4 (Tiyas), Shayrat, and Abu Al-Duhur airbases,” Syrian Brigadier General Ahmed Rahal said. “It could have used them if it wanted to, but it did not. There are two possibilities here. One is that there is a dispute between Iran and the Syrian regime. This makes sense because the Syrian regime has been unwilling to get involved since receiving a warning from the Israeli defence minister and chief of general staff that if Syrian took part in any Iranian operation, Israel would bombard Syrian military units and intelligence headquarters, and even Bashar Al-Assad in the presidential palace. The second possibility is that the Iranians do not trust the Syrians. Some quarters of the Syrian regime have come under suspicion for complicity in the recent targeted assassinations of Iranian commanders in Kafarsouseh, Mezzeh, Sayyeda Zeinab and other locations. It is believed that some senior ranking Syrian officials divulged to Israel the coordinates and times of Iranian arms shipments and meetings of Iranian officials. Israel took out most of the Iranian commanders in Syria in the space of three months. Some of them were assassinated within a few hours after arriving in Damascus to coordinate operations.”

Rahal added, “according to the information available to me, Iran has opened an independent investigation into the Israeli bombing of the embassy’s building and has not allowed the Syrian regime’s intelligence to take part, which is an offence to Syrian sovereignty.”

It has been clear for some time that Iranian-Syrian relations are fraught. But Syria has its own reasons for dissociating itself from the current Iranian-Israeli crisis. It does not want to become the sacrificial lamb for the Iranians. It knows full well it could not fend off a powerful Israeli attack and that it could not sustain the costs of one, especially if it targets Syrian intelligence or the presidential headquarters. Nor could it retaliate because of the vast imbalance between Syrian and Israeli military strength, which is additionally backed by the US whose battleships stand at the ready in the Eastern Mediterranean.

There remains the question as to whether Iran will act on its own without considering Syria’s interests or the opinion of the Syrian people. Also, it is still hard to say whether Israel will opt for the easier option of getting back at Iran through the nearest targets, namely Syria and Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Syrians themselves fear that they could emerge the biggest losers in any protracted confrontation.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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