The elite Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) fired twenty rockets from southern Syria towards Israeli military bases in the Golan Heights on 9 May. The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) claimed that its defences intercepted four missiles, while the remainder fell short and landed in Syria. No Israeli casualties or damage were reported. This is the first time Iranian forces have directly fired projectiles at Israel, though they launched a drone into Israeli airspace in February. Israel responded with roughly 70 air strikes across Syria, including near Damascus, targeting IRGC-linked intelligence centres, munitions depots and an observation post near the Golan. This was the largest Israeli military operation over Syria since the 1973-74 war. Israel’s Defence Minister Lieberman claimed the IDF had destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, though this is likely overstated. An independent monitor has said 23 people died in the raids.
Tel Aviv has responded to Tehran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, and especially near the Golan, with increasingly frequent and assertive air strikes against Iranian interests in recent months. Most recently, on 8 May Israeli jets hit an arms depot at a military base south of the Syrian capital, reportedly killing at least nine people including IRGC members. A separate strike targeted IRGC assets at a Syrian air base near Palmyra last month. Tehran and Damascus have typically said little or nothing in response to such Israeli operations so as to avoid creating domestic pressure to retaliate and thereby provoke an escalation. However, the increasing frequency of Israeli air strikes and the growing Iranian casualty rate will have likely prompted Iran to respond in this instance.
Moreover, Iran’s rocket fire came one day after US President Trump said Washington would withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Tehran. We noted in yesterday’s Special Report that this could prompt symbolic but limited Iranian military action against Israel. This reflects that Tehran partly blames Tel Aviv for Trump’s decision given Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s high-profile bid to persuade him to abandon the deal. The IRGC attack is thus intended to demonstrate to Iranian domestic critics that the organisation can hit back at Israel, which is widely seen as one of Iran’s main enemies. This will boost the standing of the IRGC, which has been under increasing domestic criticism for its costly foreign interventions at a time of economic hardship. The IRGC will also hope to boost support for Iran in Arab states, partly by contrasting Tehran’s willingness to fight Tel Aviv with Saudi efforts to improve ties with Trump and Netanyahu.
Nonetheless, Iran is unlikely to launch a more sustained direct military campaign against Israel as this would damage Tehran’s relations with European powers, which have been strengthened by Trump’s decision to breach the nuclear deal. Moreover, the IRGC is focused on supporting President Assad in Syria’s civil war and on establishing a long-term military presence there. It will not wish to provoke extensive Israeli strikes that could undermine this objective. For this reason, the IRGC calibrated its attacks to avoid triggering a massive Israeli retaliation, for instance through using only short-range missiles against the relatively sparsely-inhabited northern Golan. Meanwhile, Hizballah, which receives extensive Iranian military and financial support, wants to boost its standing in Lebanon as a legitimate political party, especially while talks to form a new government in Beirut continue. For this reason, Hizballah – which was not directly involved in the 9 May attacks – is also unlikely to seek a major conflict with Israel at present. Likewise, Assad will view such violence as potentially disrupting his efforts to defeat rebel forces.
For its part, Israel sees Iran’s ability to fire rockets against it from Syria as an unacceptable security threat. Israel’s recent strikes have therefore aimed to degrade the IRGC’s capabilities and deter future missile strikes against Israeli territory, which it fears could become a new norm and be used as leverage by Tehran to further its aims, such as an easing of sanctions. That said, Netanyahu does not seek a major conflict with Iran or its proxies given that such violence would cause widespread disruption at home, and could also prompt Hamas to launch its own rocket attacks from Gaza. Tel Aviv will further fear that neither Moscow nor Washington could act as a credible mediator to contain the fighting, and so is reluctant to trigger an escalation that it will struggle to control. This was highlighted by Lieberman’s comments after Israel’s raids that “everyone wants to limit this confrontation”.
Nonetheless, despite the desire of Tel Aviv, Tehran, Damascus and Hizballah to avoid an escalation, Iran will persist in its efforts to establish a permanent military presence near the Golan, both directly and through its proxies, which will continue to cause intense Israeli concerns. Assad’s attempts to recapture areas in southern Syria from rebels in the coming months will also give Iranian-linked forces greater access to the Golan border. This will prompt the IDF to continue carrying out periodic air strikes on Iranian interests inside Syria on at least a monthly basis to degrade IRGC capabilities and limit the threat of further rocket attacks. Iran will feel that it needs to periodically retaliate so as to demonstrate its own strength, increasing the risk of further clashes. The death of Israeli civilians in the North or the downing of an IDF pilot inside Syria that requires a rescue operation could also provoke a major intensification from which neither side will be willing to back down.
As a result, although no side seeks a major conflict, there is nonetheless a growing risk of an accidental escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria over the coming year, especially as the US is poorly placed to speedily mediate a de-escalation agreement – though Moscow would likely seek to fulfil this role instead. The threat will further grow as and when the Syrian conflict eases in the next few years, especially as Assad will no longer be focused on recapturing areas from the rebels and may adopt a more provocative approach to Israel in an attempt to restore his domestic and regional reputation.
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