Iran Following the Latest Confrontation with Israel in the Syrian Arena

Dr. Raz Zimmt
Iranian Targets Hit in Syria by the IDF and Responses in Iranian Media

On January 21, 2019, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) bombed targets of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its foreign-operations wing, the Qods Force. Among the targets hit, according to a statement by IDF spokesperson, were weapons depots and military sites (one of them inside the Damascus International Airport), an Iranian intelligence site and a training camp operated by Iran. In addition, the IDF bombed Syrian air defense batteries that fired at IDF jets. The strike came in response to the firing of a surface-to-surface missile by Iranian forces stationed in Syria toward the northern Golan Heights. This launch followed another strike, attributed to Israel, on the Damascus Airport on January 20, 2019.

Iranian Targets Hit (IDF Spokesperson)

On the right: Iranian logistical site inside a Syrian Army base. On the left: an Iranian site inside the Damascus International Airport (IDF Spokesperson website, January 21, 2019).
On the right: Iranian logistical site inside a Syrian Army base. On the left: an Iranian site inside the Damascus International Airport (IDF Spokesperson website, January 21, 2019).

Strike on a Syrian surface-to-air missile battery (Video released by IDF Spokesperson, January 21, 2019).
Strike on a Syrian surface-to-air missile battery (Video released by IDF Spokesperson, January 21, 2019).

Aerial Photographs of Targeted Iranian Locations

(courtesy of the ISI company)

Aerial Photographs of Targeted Iranian Locations (courtesy of the ISI company)

Aerial Photographs of Targeted Iranian Locations (courtesy of the ISI company)

Aerial Photographs of Targeted Iranian Locations (courtesy of the ISI company)

  • Iran did not officially comment on the IDF strike. Iranian media provided brief factual reporting, mainly highlighting the response of Syria’s air defense systems to Israel’s operation. Iran did not confirm the report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights according to which 12 IRGC cadres were killed in the Israeli strike. The military reporter of the Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, claimed on his Twitter account (January 22, 2019) that none of the Iranian “military advisers” or positions were damaged by the strikes. He described the reports about Iranian casualties as “a psychological warfare campaign of the Zionist enemy.”
The Significance of the Missile Launch toward the Golan Heights by Iranian Forces in Syria
  • The launch of the missile by Iranian forces stationed in Syria demonstrates, in our assessment, Iran’s determination to continue to entrench its military presence in Syria despite IDF actions that limit Iran’s room to maneuver. Iran benefits from the current preference of the Syrian regime and Russia for Iran to maintain its presence in the country. Iran is determined not to forego its influence in Syria and is demonstrating its ability to maintain a military presence near the Syria-Israel border.
  • Russia does not see a justification for a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, and is aware of the fact that the presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria creates growing friction with Israel, jeopardizing the gains of the Syrian regime and threatening the political settlement process to end the civil war. Nonetheless, Russia still sees a need for the military presence of Iran and the Shi’ite militias operating under its guidance in Syria, since a conclusive victory has not been secured in the military campaign, and therefore, Russia is currently disinterested in trying to stymie Iranian military buildup in Syria.
  • Shortly before the latest escalatory round, Iranian officials asserted that Tehran will continue to maintain forces in Syria, while claiming that these are “military advisers” operating following an official invitation of the Syrian government. The statement of IRGC Commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, is noteworthy: he declared that Iran will continue to maintain the presence of its military advisers, as well as equipment and weaponry, which are used to train and bolster the “Islamic Resistance” in Syria (possible oblique reference to Hezbollah). He labeled the statements issued by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu threatening to continue to act against Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria “ridiculous.” Jafari also proclaimed that Israel should fear the day when Iran’s high-precision missiles fall on its head.
  • Jafari also addressed the statement of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claiming that Iran does not have military presence in Syria. Jafari clarified that the spokesman meant that regular Iranian military units are not present in Syria, as opposed to advisers and irregular forces operating under Iranian guidance. He asserted that Israel knows well that Iran’s military units are so powerful and impressive that if even one of them reaches Syria, Israel will have to surrender (Fars, January 16, 2019). The Senior Adviser to the Supreme Leader of Iran and the former Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, Hasan Firouzabadi, also asserted that the presence of Iranian advisers in Syria will remain in place as long as “terrorists” continue to operate there and for as long as Syria requires Iranian assistance (IRNA, January 14, 2019).
Assessment of Iran’s Reasoning Behind the Decision to Launch a Missile Toward Israel
  • The missile launch toward Israeli territory was an extraordinary Iranian response to an extraordinary Israeli strike, carried out on January 20, 2019, in broad daylight. Beyond the immediate circumstances, in our assessment, there several additional reasons for Iran’s decision to launch the missile:
    • Israel’s decision to end the deliberate ambiguity regarding its military activities in Syria. Statements by senior Israeli officials regarding achievements in the campaign against Iran may have contributed to Iran’s decision to demonstrate its determination and ability to act against Israel. A commentary published in the Iranian Tabanak website following the firing of the missile (January 21, 2019), warned that a dangerous confrontation between Iran and Israel may develop in Syria after Israel altered the unwritten rules of the game that existed between Iran and Israel in Syria. The commentary alleged that in the past, Israel avoided claiming responsibility for strikes on Iranian targets and warned Iran ahead of time about its strikes in Syria, to avoid casualties and a possible Iranian retaliation.
    • The decision of U.S. President Trump to withdraw the American troops stationed in Syria. Tehran perceives the American pullout as a propaganda victory that serves its interests as an actor that has exerted efforts over the years to reduce American presence in the region. This withdrawal also provides Iran with the opportunity to try to redefine the rules of the game in the arena, increasing its freedom to operate in Syria and expand its military entrenchment.

“Another example for the sunsetting of the American superpower” (Tasnim, December 23, 2018).
“Another example for the sunsetting of the American superpower” (Tasnim, December 23, 2018).

  • The ongoing negotiations between Iran, Russia and Turkey concerning the division of political, military and economic control and influence in Syria following the stabilization of the Assad regime. In light of these negotiations, Iran is determined to secure its position in Syria following the end of the civil war. Therefore, Iran strives to make it clear to other actors in the arena of its intention to play a central role in shaping reality in Syria after a political settlement is reached.
Summary and Assessment
  • At this stage, in our assessment, Iran is not interested in an all-out confrontation with Israel. Iran’s decision not to issue an official response to the Israeli strike and the limited media coverage in Iran following the events reflects, in our view, Iran’s desire to avoid a further escalation, particularly at this sensitive time when Iran is facing increased international pressure and a growing financial crisis. Iran is also interested in maintaining a space for deniability, to allow it to retaliate at the time and place of its choosing. Tehran is well-aware of Israel’s intelligence and technological superiority in the northern front, and has even displayed a willingness to adapt its strategy in Syria to the growing constrains it faces. For example, Iran further decreased the presence of IRGC forces in Syria, while increasingly relying on foreign Shi’ite fighters and local Syrian forces, in line with its preferred strategy of utilizing local and regional proxies.

Qods Force Commander Qasem Soleimani with fighters of the Shi’ite Iraqi militia, Harakat al-Nujabaa in Albu Kamal, eastern Syria (ISNA, November 16, 2017).
Qods Force Commander Qasem Soleimani with fighters of the Shi’ite Iraqi militia, Harakat al-Nujabaa in Albu Kamal, eastern Syria (ISNA, November 16, 2017).

  • Israel’s actions continue to thwart Iran’s designs in Syria, but those actions are insufficient to force Iran to abandon its efforts to entrench its military presence in Syria and play a central role in shaping Syria following the stabilization of the Assad regime. After the last escalatory round between Israel and Iran in May 2018, in which the Iranians emerged on the losing side, they did not abandon their goal of trying to continue to further their strategic goals. These goals are stabilizing and shaping the Syrian regime, while increasing Iranian influence over it; augmenting Iran’s array of tools to pressure Israel and the threats Israel faces, while creating deterrence vis-à-vis Israel. This entails transferring knowledge to increase the precision of Hezbollah’s missiles and rebuilding Syria’s military industry. In addition, Iran acts to increase its influence in Syria in the civilian and economic spheres as well.

The meeting of the joint Syrian-Iranian economic committee (SANA, December 29, 2018).
The meeting of the joint Syrian-Iranian economic committee (SANA, December 29, 2018).

In sum: despite the extraordinary Israeli strike, Iran has not given up on its intention to establish in Syria another base of operations along Israel’s northern border, from which it could deploy is pro-Iranian proxy militias and Hezbollah fighters. In our assessment, Iran does not seek to engender an all-out conflict with Israel and prefers to maintain a strategy of brinkmanship. However, Iran continues to test and try to redefine the “rules of the game” and stretch and confine of possible actions against Israel from Syria in accordance with political and military developments in the arena. The launch of the missile reflects that to achieve its strategic goals, Iran is willing to take risks (limited ones, in its view) by launching offensive action against Israel.