Simmering, Ready to Explode: The War Between Iran and Israel Heats Up in Syria

An Israeli F-16 jet / Getty

As American pundits and policymakers debate how to approach Syria following President Trump's decision to withdraw troops, the stage is being set in the war-torn country for a region-wide conflict. The key to this coming storm is the war between Iran and Israel, which escalated in important ways on Sunday night.

Israel's military said it launched airstrikes against several Iranian targets in Syria after Iran's Quds Force, an expeditionary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, launched a missile at the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. The Israeli assault, one of the broadest in recent years, hit weapons storage sites, an intelligence site, and a training camp, among other military targets connected to the Quds Force. When the Syrian government responded by firing surface-to-air missiles at Israeli warplanes, Israel attacked several of Syria's air defense batteries.

In an unprecedented move, Israel acknowledged its military strikes as they were underway, providing updates on social media in real time. This decision continues an ongoing shift from Jerusalem's normal posture, which is neither to confirm nor deny such attacks. One reason for this change may be the fact that, with today's technology and a 24-hour news cycle, concealing airstrikes of this magnitude is next to impossible. But another reason may be that Israel is done concealing the obvious and wants—or feels the need—to send a public message to Iran and Syria.

"The policy has changed," Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said Monday. "This is an open confrontation with Iran. When we need to step it up, we'll step it up."

"This was a clear message to the Iranians," Katz added. "We won't allow their entrenchment in Syria."

Israel wants to make clear its resolve and willingness to strike immediately and forcefully to deter Iran and others from attempting to harm Israeli interests. But Israel is not the only one trying to create deterrence. As Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote, Iran's missile strike should be understood as an "attempt to create a new balance of power on the Israeli-Syrian front—to generate the expectation that an Israeli attack in Syrian territory will result in fire on Israeli territory." Iran seeks to pressure Jerusalem not to attack Iranian targets in Syria.

Tehran and Damascus were not the only intended audiences of Israel's message. Jerusalem also sent a not-so-subtle signal to Russia, which, through military and diplomatic support, has helped keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. The Israel Defense Forces said the missile targeting the Golan Heights "was fired by Iranians out of Damascus within an area that we were promised that there would be no Iranians." An IDF spokesperson added that "the relevant parties" had assured Israel that the area would be free of Iranian troops.

Israel has worked with the United States and Russia to keep Iranian and Iranian-backed forces, especially Lebanese Hezbollah, away from the Syrian border. Russia has said that it would keep Iran away from Israel's border, but has failed. The problem is not only that Russia is unwilling to do what is necessary to keep the Iranians away, but also—and more importantly—that Russia is unable to do so. Many Western analysts who have advocated using Russia toward this end seem not to recognize that Iran controls the ground in Syria. The Assad regime's military is impotent, and the Russians have mainly supplied air power. Iran, not Russia, has been mobilizing tens of thousands of Shi'ite militiamen and deploying Hezbollah's forces, which answer to Tehran.

Iran is fully committed, both strategically and ideologically, to entrenching itself in Syria to open up another front against Israel, and to build a so-called land bridge from its Afghan border in the west to the Mediterranean Sea in the east, a continuous corridor of political and military control from which to exert influence across the Middle East. If Iran has its way, it will have military bases across Syria and a Shi'ite army of 100,000 strong to command against the Jewish state.

Israel is determined to prevent Iran from achieving this vision and has made clear it will do whatever is necessary toward that end, even if that means a full-blown war. The situation has managed to stay below that threshold thus far, but if the current dynamics remain, large-scale violence becomes all too likely.

The real danger is that the conflict spills into Lebanon, triggering another war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah, Iran's chief proxy force. Hezbollah has an estimated 130,000 rockets ready to fire at Israel. Because Israel is such a small country with few key strategic targets, it would need to act immediately in a conflict with overwhelming force.

Such a war would not just include Iran and Hezbollah. A commander of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units, a network of militias linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, warned Sunday that the PMU is ready to respond to Israeli acts of "hostility." Moreover, Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has said that a future war with Israel could draw thousands of fighters from countries including Iraq.

Right now the war between Iran and Israel—and it is a war—is simmering. But that pot can begin boiling at any time, before overflowing and creating a mess of blood and debris.