Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

New Balances and Red Lines in Syria

The riskiest time in a low-level conflict is when the balance of power changes and new red lines must be determined.

In Syria now, as Russia reduces its forces, Iranian Revolution Guard forces are increasing their presence and Israel perceives a gradually increasing Iranian threat from both its nuclear program and missile program in Syria. I do not mean that total war is likely to begin in Syria next week or next month. It is possible, however, that any of these countries could unintentionally cross a red line and trigger an escalation that none of the countries actually want.

First, we should not exaggerate about the Russian withdrawal in Syria. It is not big, and Russia, will keep its naval base in Tartus and its air base in Hmeimim. On the ground in Syria, however, there are local reports of Iranian Revolution Guards units and their militia allies taking control of Russian checkpoints and small bases, especially in eastern and northern Syria.

Iran has bigger financial resources to spend on military deployments in Syria. The Central Bank of Iran recently reported that revenues from oil exports in the first half of the Persian year were 18.6 billion dollars, up from 8.5 billion in the first half of last year. Despite its domestic economic problems and protests, Tehran can mobilize more military forces to send to Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Tehran earlier this month indicates that Iran’s presence and influence in Syria will grow.

The Americans will certainly perceive the growing Iranian military presence in eastern Syria as a threat; in the past year some small American bases came under attack from Iranian drones. We can expect some exchanges of fire between militias loyal to Iran in eastern Syria and the American military forces. These battles will be limited, however. The Americans don’t want a big fight in Syria; they have not yet identified a strategic interest in Syria that justifies a major war there.

By contrast, Israel has identified a strategic national interest connected to the Iran military presence: the continuing Iranian program to deploy guided missiles in Syria could inflict serious damage on Israeli targets and therefore, the Israeli air force continues to bomb Iranian targets regularly. Moscow in the past essentially gave a green light for these Israeli air attacks, although there were angry messages after a Syrian air defense missile shot down a Russian military transport airplane in 2018 in the middle of an Israeli air attack and 15 Russian soldiers died.

The Russians sent their S-300 air defense missiles to Syria after that incident, but the Israelis and Russians restored their coordination and Israeli strikes have continued.

If new Iranian deployments in Syria trigger intensified Israeli air attacks there are two possible risks: first, so far, the Iranians have not responded to the Israelis. Perhaps their patience has no limits and they have no red line with respect to losses among their forces in Syria.

If they have a red line, the Israelis haven’t found it yet, and an Iranian retaliation will be a surprise. An Iranian decision to retaliate will reflect political competition in Tehran; those domestic Iranian politics are complicating an agreement between Iran and international powers about its nuclear program.

If Iran retaliates, Israel will escalate quickly. Israel will be less interested in Iranian politics and more determined to reestablish deterrence and therefore, it will hit hard. Where the escalation between Israel and Iran would end is not clear.

In addition, for the first time the Russians fired an S-300 missile at Israeli warplanes during their May 13 strike at Masyaf. These missiles are under direct Russian control and although the system didn’t use its radar fully, and therefore didn’t present a big threat to the Israeli warplane, this incident was a Russian message, perhaps because Masyaf is only about 70 kilometers from the Russian airbase at Hmeimim.

Had the Russians used their radar and truly threatened the Israeli warplane, they would cross an Israeli red line. Israeli strikes against Russian targets in turn are a Russian red line. Thus, the May 13 Israeli strike came near a Russian red line but the Russian response was careful.

In the weeks ahead, therefore, as more Iranian deployments in Syria provoke intensified Israeli air strikes, several escalation scenarios are possible in Syria.

On the positive side, Russia is unhappy with some Israeli actions with respect to Ukraine, but Moscow does not want a big war in the Middle East now, especially in view of Turkish bans on Russian military overflights that complicate Russian logistics in Syria.

As balances in Syria evolve and red lines are redrawn, the challenge for the states is not to trip over one by mistake.