Iran And Israel Are Already at War in Syria, But It Could Get Much Worse | NEWSWEEK

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Iran And Israel Are Already at War in Syria, But It Could Get Much Worse | Avi Melamed’s insights quoted in this article by Tom O’Connor for NEWSWEEK.

Just over 13 years after Syria was first plunged into civil war between the government and an array of insurgent factions, the country stands today on the frontlines of what has the potential to be the region’s most serious conflict in decades, with the risk of drawing in the United States directly.

After years of engaging in shadowy tit-for-tat operations, Iran and Israel’s unofficial battle in Syria has been thrust out into the open by an unprecedented attack in the Syrian capital that killed several top Iranian advisers, including two top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has never officially claimed the operation, but virtually no one, not even former senior Israeli officials with whom Newsweek spoke, doubts Israel’s involvement.

The strike is seen as the most egregious attack on the Islamic Republic since the U.S. killing of IRGC Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq in January 2020.

As speculation mounts across the region as to when, where and how the Islamic Republic will carry out its promised revenge, another stretch of internationally recognized Syrian territory has been touted as a potential target, the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War of 1967.

Now, even with Israel already mired in the longest and deadliest-ever war with Palestinians, facing ongoing clashes with Hamas and constant fire from Iran-aligned “Axis of Resistance” factions from at least four nations, the Iran-Israel indirect war taking place on the sidelines of the war in Gaza threatens to become the main event.

“It’s very important to differentiate between the level of hostility we have witnessed so far and the potential for a full-fledged regional war,” Eran Etzion, former head of policy planning at the Israeli Foreign Ministry and deputy head of the Israeli National Security Council, told Newsweek. “It’s very, very different.

Israel’s Dilemma

It’s a war that no one wants—at least officially. In an exceedingly rare harmony of messaging, officials from Iran, Israel and the U.S. have emphasized that a broader regional conflict was in no one’s interest. China, Russia and Saudi Arabia have also called for calm.

But this consensus has been increasingly tested following the seismic events of October 7, 2023, when the Palestinian Hamas movement and allied Gaza factions launched a historic surprise attack on Israel, killing more than 1,200 people, according to Israeli estimates. Since then, more than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in the subsequent IDF campaign, as estimated by officials in Hamas-held Gaza.

No direct ties have ever been established between Tehran and Hamas’ decision to conduct the shocking incursion, but Iran has acknowledged its close ties to armed Palestinian factions and has lauded their ongoing battle with Israel. Axis of Resistance groups hailing from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen have also entered the conflict through daily strikes against Israel.

For Israel, the situation has presented “a strategic dilemma” for Israeli leadership, as observed by Etzion. That is “to what extent do we attempt to directly attack Iran rather than simply attack its various proxies, including the ones in Syria?”

In addition to the hundreds of strikes conducted by Israel against Syria over the course of at least a decade, he pointed out how, “throughout the years, Israel has taken some actions on Iranian soil, for some it has taken responsibility and for some [it has] not.”

“But by and large, these were very targeted, isolated, usually focusing on the nuclear issue or strategic capabilities,” Etzion said. “It was surgical and limited.”

Iran has always denied seeking weapons of mass destruction, but its nuclear program has been a major source of contention vis-à-vis Israel and the U.S., whose sanctions continue to substantially restrict Tehran’s international trade. Israel, which is widely known to have nuclear weapons, has repeatedly threatened to prevent its nemesis from attaining such capabilities by any means necessary.

Now, Etzion stated that Israel’s deliberations “may possibly be coming to a very significant juncture” pending the scope and scale of Iran’s anticipated response to the Syria attack, which may “present an opportunity for those in Israel who wish to finally make a decision on this point and direct Israeli guns directly towards Iran.”

Still, Etzion felt there were “good chances” that a bigger war “can be prevented.”

He particularly credited U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration for its deconfliction efforts, even if U.S. forces have already become increasingly involved in the conflict with sets of strikes on Axis of Resistance factions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday amid a flurry of high-level U.S. diplomatic contacts in recent days, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller asserted that the message being broadcast abroad was that “a further escalation of this conflict doesn’t just hurt Israel, doesn’t just hurt Iran, doesn’t just hurt the countries in the region, but that it harms every country in the world.”

“Every country in the world would be hurt by wider regional conflict,” he added. “Every country in the world would be hurt by wider regional war, both economically, diplomatically.”

But as Etzion noted, “it already takes more and more American efforts” to defuse the situation, and the steady path toward escalation “puts all the actors, including Israel, in more and more difficult dilemma.”

Iranian Calculations

Tehran, too, has exercised restraint. However, as one senior Iranian official said in a letter addressed to United Nations leadership and shared with Newsweek in the wake of the attack in Syria, “there are limits to such forbearance.”

Unlike Israel, which has been engaged in a near-constant series of conflicts since its establishment on territory counterclaimed by Palestinians in 1948, Iran has only fought one full-scale war since the founding of the Islamic Republic 45 years ago. The bloody Iran-Iraq War, waged from 1980-1989, would come to define Tehran’s then-nascent revolutionary leadership for ages to come.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came to power just as that conflict officially ended, and he has ever since avoided any new all-out conflicts, preferring to invest heavily in combat-ready ideological allies to provide strategic depth abroad.

It was only after Soleimani’s assassination at Baghdad International Airport four years ago, following a worsening cycle of violence between U.S. troops and militias, that the Islamic Republic ordered a direct missile strike on a rival military, injuring more than 100 U.S. military personnel in Iraq.

Even as they appeared to trend toward a far more serious confrontation, both Iran and the U.S., then led by former President Donald Trump, opted to leave the immediate round of escalation at that.

But a quick cooldown after a direct Iranian attack on Israel is far from guaranteed. Though averse to direct conflict, Biden has vowed that “our commitment to Israel’s security against these threats from Iran and its proxies is ironclad” in the tense period since the attack in Damascus.

Mustafa Najafi, an Iranian researcher specializing in Middle East conflicts and Iran’s foreign policy, argued Tehran had already outlined its reaction to what may come next.

“Iran has also prepared itself for the second level of response,” Najafi told Newsweek. “If Iran’s first response leads to Israel’s response, Iran will make the second level of response more severe. Therefore, we should expect the escalation of tensions between Iran and Israel in the coming days, weeks and even months.”

As to how Iran’s initial retaliation could actually manifest, Najafi said this “will not be limited to a certain time or place.”

“Part of this response is done directly by Iran, which is, of course, limited,” Najafi said. “A major part is also more intense by resistance groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The location of the answer also includes both inside Israel and the assets of this regime outside the occupied territories. The Persian Gulf, the Arab countries, the Oman Sea, and the Mediterranean will be the target areas outside of Israel.”

Iranian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Amir Saeid Iravani declined to discuss the matter until “after Iran’s response to the Israeli regime,” in a remark shared with Newsweek by the Iranian Mission to the U.N.

Newsweek reached out to the IDF for comment.

In an address delivered Thursday, IDF spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari asserted that “for years, and even more so during the war, Iran has been financing, directing and arming its proxies—in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Yemen—to attack the State of Israel, and not only the State of Israel but other countries in the region and not only in the region.”

“An attack from Iranian territory would be clear evidence of Iran’s intentions to escalate the Middle East and stop hiding behind the proxies,” he added.

Why Syria Matters

While Iran’s Axis of Resistance network spans multiple countries, even beyond the Middle East, Syria has emerged as a central hub for the “Joint Operations Room,” which Najafi said was formed two years ago and “activated” when the war in Gaza began.

The Joint Operations Room, according to Najafi, was designed to coordinate actions amid varying levels of severity, with different plans to ensure cohesive responses to an “existential threat,” an “acute security situation,” a “conflict situation” and even a “stable situation.” All throughout, the joint mechanism is tasked with “creating deterrence with limited attacks” and practicing “risk distribution and division of labor in response to threats.”

In this framework, Najafi said that “Syria is the most important corridor for the transfer of troops and weapons to the front lines of the resistance front in Lebanon and Palestine.”

“Currently, the Resistance Front has gained a lot of security and military dominance in Syria,” Najafi said. “Bashar al-Assad also considers himself a part of this front against Israel. Syria is the backbone of the power network structure of the resistance in the region. Without the direct or indirect role of the Syrian government, the resistance front faces a serious challenge.”

The historic importance of Tehran’s closest Arab ally was made evident by Iran’s decision to undergo an unprecedented mobilization to support Assad when rebels and jihadis first rose up against his government after protests devolved into civil war in 2011. As the Syrian government regained ground in a campaign also aided by direct Russian military intervention, Iran further entrenched its presence via the IRGC and various militia allies.

These militias include Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an array of Iraqi groups such as Kataib Hezbollah, the Nujaba Movement and the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, the Fatemiyoun from Afghanistan and the Zainebiyoun from Pakistan. The IRGC also maintains a direct presence across the country and coordinates through what intelligence revealed last year by Newsweek to be the “Imam Hossein Division,” comprised of thousands of international fighters now claimed by Israel to be moving beyond Syria’s borders as well amid the war in Gaza.

“These militias operate in coordination with the Syrian army, primarily within the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Syrian divisions, in strategically vital areas aimed at securing and expanding Iranian control in Syria and securing Assad regime,” Avi Melamed, a former Israeli intelligence official and senior adviser on Arab affairs, told Newsweek.

Melamed described some of the most important regions for the presence of Iran and its allied network in Syria as being the eastern Deir Ezzor region, the region surrounding Damascus and the road to Homs as well as the capital’s southern suburbs, stretching down to Al-Quneitra and Deraa, which border the Israel-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan, respectively.

“The Assad regime provides the crucial logistical infrastructure for the creation of an Iranian sphere of influence from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea,” Melamed said.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat now an editor at Syria Update, provided Newsweek with coordinates indicating a vast infrastructure of IRGC and aligned militia positions in all of these Syrian provinces, including command and control centers, drone launch and engineering sites, weapons storage and manufacturing depots, surface-to-surface and anti-air missile systems and electronic warfare platforms.

But it was at the junction between those two southern Syrian cities of Al-Quneitra and Deraa that Barabandi told Newsweek the IRGC and its allies have especially fortified positions, including elevated points overlooking the de facto border with the Israel-occupied Golan Heights.

“All of southern Syria is under Iranian military control,” Barabandi said, “and in some areas, they are just a few kilometers from Israeli borders.”

Americans at Risk

The degree to which Iran exerts direct control over the Axis of Resistance remains a matter of debate. Mohammad Ali Shabani, editor of, a London-based news site that focuses on Iran, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula countries, notes that there is an important distinction “between coordination vs. command and control” in this dynamic.

Still, in the six months since the war in Gaza erupted, he observed “coordination on a level that we have not previously seen among Iran’s allies.”

Israel is not the only country whose troops have come under fire throughout this period. Up to 900 U.S. troops remain in Syria and roughly 2,500 in Iraq, officially tasked with ongoing efforts to defeat ISIS, which continues to pose a threat to the region and abroad, and the White House has expressed concern over the safety of their personnel in light of heightened tensions.

One Axis of Resistance faction, a coalition calling itself the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, has repeatedly targeted U.S. forces in both countries with rockets and drones. The campaign only came to a halt in February after the deaths of three U.S. soldiers at the Jordan-Syria border resulted in intensive U.S. airstrikes and the assassination of a senior commander of Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah.

But a number of Iraqi militia officials have asserted, including in conversations with Newsweek, that attacks would resume, and on an even larger scale, should upcoming talks between U.S. President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani not result in a total withdrawal of U.S. forces. Syria may prove an even more volatile front as Washington maintains no official diplomatic ties with Damascus, which has demanded the immediate exit of U.S. forces.

“As for Syria,” Shabani told Newsweek, “it has been a significant arena for operations to put pressure on Israel mainly via activities geared to pressure U.S. forces.”

One U.S. defense official acknowledged that the Pentagon was “aware” of Israel’s heightened state of alert but declined to comment on any protective measures being adopted by U.S. personnel on the ground. The official also declined to disclose information regarding activities by Iranian or Iran-aligned personnel that may indicate the nature of Tehran’s response, citing “OPSEC,” or operations security.

The Syrian Mission to the United Nations accused the U.S. of having “not only participated actively in the Israeli entity’s war on the Palestinian people,” but also sparing “no opportunity to justify the crimes and terrorism of this entity, from targeting defenseless people to targeting humanitarian organizations and diplomatic missions,” in comments shared with Newsweek.

It called Israel “the main cause of instability in the region and the suffering of its people.”

‘Anything but Optimal’

Meanwhile, as Hezbollah and Yemen’s Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis, continue their campaigns in support of Gaza, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq has also doubled down on its attacks on Israel, including against the Golan Heights. On Tuesday, the IDF announced artillery fire in response to a Syria-based Islamic Resistance in Iraq attack on the Golan Heights, as well as airstrikes against Syrian military positions.

All eyes may be on Iran’s aims to retaliate against Israel, but Syria’s internationally backed claim to the Golan could prove a decisive factor in the Islamic Republic’s decision-making, according to sources in Tehran.

“The rumor in Tehran is that the Golan Heights are a potential target,” Shabani said. “This is partly because of perceptions that such an operation would be a lesser risk as it is occupied Syrian territory. The Iranians may believe that they can claim victory by attacking Israel without inviting a direct response.”

“However, this could be a dangerous miscalculation,” he added, “given the many factors at play, including how Israel would treat an attack on the Golan, and also the launch site for such an assault on Israel from the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan by Iran or its allies.”

At the same time, Etzion, the former deputy Israeli national security council chief, also warned that Israel is in no comfortable position to fight an even larger-scale war while still embroiled in one historic conflict without a decisive victory.

“We have been in the longest war on this level of intensity in our history since the inception of the country,” Etzion said. “The economy is in crisis; our foreign relations are in crisis; the humanitarian situation in Gaza is horrible; we’re taking multiple hits on multiple fronts and it’s not the right time to launch a full-scale regional war from our perspective.”

“It’s anything but optimal,” he added. “So as far as we’re concerned, we should do our utmost to prevent it from erupting at this point in time.”

Iran And Israel Are Already at War in Syria, But It Could Get Much Worse | Avi Melamed’s insights quoted in this article by Tom O’Connor for NEWSWEEK.

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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