Akram Bunni

The Rules of Israeli Escalation in Syria!

Many are shocked by the submissiveness and passivity of the so-called Axis of Resistance in addressing the ongoing Israeli air and missile strikes targeting this Axis’ military bases in Syria. Adding to their bewilderment is that this servility persisted even as the rules of escalation changed, with the sphere of targets expanding to include locations that are hundreds of kilometers away from the border and civilian sites, including the airports of Damascus and Aleppo, which have recently been violently bombarded and temporarily put out of service.

Those who believe that Israel is changing the rules of escalation in response to the increase of Iranian military activity in Syria are correct. These attacks are also in retaliation to the reports about missile factories being built and ammunition and advanced weaponry being transported through the airports of Damascus and Aleppo, including air defenses and drones, and these weapons being stored in warehouses located in an array of Syrian cities. Indeed, the government in Tel Aviv has always justified its increased military operations in Syria by pointing to the growing presence and threats of the Iranians.

On several occasions, it has reiterated its goal of preventing Tehran and its armed sectarian militias from establishing, now or in the future, a military presence in Syria that grants it the capacity to threaten Israel’s security from its northern border, as well as to hinder Iranian expansion in Syrian territory and the enhancement of Iran’s military positions and weapons in Syria, which would make Syria a complementary front to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Those who tie this escalation to the ongoing negotiations in Vienna are not mistaken, as Tel Aviv, through these attacks, seeks to pile pressure on the US administration and the European states to take a firmer stance and account for its interests and concerns. It wants them to take more precautions against future Iranian breaches of the agreement and to force more concessions from Iran, whereby the deal does not address only the nuclear program but also Iran’s role in the region and its ballistic missile program.

Those who believe that the timing is linked to the war between Russia and Ukraine have not missed the mark either. Israel seeks to exploit Russia’s preoccupation with its war there, and the Jewish state is unsettled by the fact that Iran is trying to enhance its military position on the ground in Syria and fill the gap left by the Russians pulling some of their troops out of the country so they can fight in Ukraine. In fact, they are open about the fact that they refuse to allow Iran to establish military bases on Syrian territory.

From this same angle, it is correct to see this recent escalation as part of Israel’s attempt to capitalize on the Arab states’ apprehensions regarding Iran’s expansionist ambitions. These attacks send a strong signal that Israel would be a reliable partner in the effort to find solutions to the region’s problems and ensure its stability. It also wants to indicate that it is prepared to cooperate in addressing the quandary created by Iran’s growing influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

Nevertheless, this takes nothing away from the fact that Israel had, alongside the United States, laid the groundwork for this growing influence or at least allowed it to grow. Both the war on Iraq, which was followed by the obliteration of its state and its institutions, and the leniency with which the growth of Hezbollah in Lebanon sowed the seeds of this expansion, as did overlooking the blatant interference of Iran and its militias in Syria

Of course, it is not secret that Israeli escalation in Syria would not have continued without the longstanding complicity of the Syrian regime. It is now obvious that Israel, over the past ten years, has not pushed for the overthrow of the regime. Rather, it did everything in its power to ensure the regime’s survival, and the rulers of Damascus, in turn, became aware that Israeli cover was critical for their survival.

We say all of this before getting into Tel Aviv’s military superiority and the crises facing the Syrian regime amid the destruction and violence that has wreaked havoc across the country, which explains the Syrians’ insistence on not allowing their border to turn into a war front and on depriving Iran and its militias of ability to retaliate from Syrian territory. This conviction is strengthened by the fact that Israel has signaled to the regime, in various ways, that it is not concerned with the regime’s military operations and that, in general, it will continue to launch only deterrent attacks that primarily target mainly arms shipments, Iranian missile depots, and bases of the IRGC and the militias associated with it.

Making matters more bewildering is that Israel’s military escalation was not met, as had been the norm, with escalation from the Syrian media. On the contrary, we have seen the Syrian media walk back on its tough positions. The regime, which had always threatened to respond to what it considers aggression “at the appropriate time and place,” is now seeking the aid of the international community.

In a statement released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the regime called on the international community to hold Israel accountable, arguing that airstrikes on civilian infrastructure are a war crime under international law… Holding the Arab world and international community’s silence responsible for allowing the enemy to continue its attacks, which have not been condemned- even those targeting civilian facilities… Stressing that Damascus maintains its right to hold the Israeli authorities “accountable” and considers Israel responsible for all the legal, moral, political, and financial ramifications of their attacks on the international airports of Damascus and Aleppo… and so on!

As for the most bewildering aspect of this state of affairs, it is that Israel changing the rules of military escalation against the Iranian target in Syria, with its attacks becoming more regular and larger in scale, did not undermine the keenness of both sides to keep matters under control and avert the eruption of war. Tehran was content with swiftly changing the location of arms depots and warning its forces not to leave their fortified sites!

The fact is that just as Israel is working to prevent the eruption of war, Iran- despite the humiliation of Tel Aviv hitting military bases and militias in Syria at will- prefers to avert war as well.

Perhaps they both want to avoid clashing because of the price that they would pay, which could potentially be exorbitant. Perhaps war is being averted because Tehran realizes that it is the weaker party that has been stretched thin after its interventions in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, as it worries that the climates of war will expose the emptiness of its slogans and the severity the crises it facing, which would incite the Iranian people against the expansionist policy of their rulers that cost them heavily.

Finally, perhaps they are avoiding war because averting it serves the interests of both. On the one hand, Israel needs Iran and its militia to maintain a presence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, so these countries remain paralyzed and are prevented from progressing, as well as to leave other Arab states surrounded and preoccupied. On the other hand, Iran and its allies overtly need Israel to continue to be a menacing force in the region if they are to paper over their failure to solve crises, as well as to justify their sectarian incitement, violent actions, and interventions in the region!