Israeli Missile Attacks Reflect Changing Strategic Landscape
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marched in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Immortal Regiment in memory of Russian fighters who died in World War II, Israel was getting ready to retaliate for an Iranian rocket attack on Israeli military units in the strategically sensitive Golan. Israel attributed the missile attack to Iran’s al-Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) operating in Syria.
The Quds Force reports directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, who certainly authorized the Iranian strike and must take full responsibility for the consequences.
The first ever incident in which Iran directly attacked Israel territory – with the launch of 20 missiles – ended in complete failure.
The Israeli Defense Ministry reported that “four of the 20 projectiles launched by Iranian troops were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and the rest fell in Syria.” The rockets included both Grad and Fajr-5 models.
The Grad is an old Soviet tube-launched 122mm rocket that is largely a terror weapon because it is inaccurate. The Fajr-5 is a larger Iranian-produced missile (333mm) that is based on a Chinese model. It supposedly has an accuracy of some 220 meters.
Israel responded to the Iranian attack with a much larger strike of 70 missiles that targeted Iranian bases, command centers and weapons depots in Syria and Syrian air defenses around Damascus, and other more forward air defenses on the Syrian part of the Golan.
According to Israel’s Defense Ministry, the Syrian air defenses have been battered to the degree where they are no longer functional and need to be completely rebuilt. Israel says the retaliatory strike was successful against most of the Iranian targets but it will take time before a reliable assessment can be made.
Iran’s attempt to strike Israel and the powerful response suggests a significant change is afoot in geostrategic dynamics in the Middle East.
Here are the key points to consider:
Russia was informed by Israel ahead of the attack on the Iranians, a fact that was officially stated by the Israel Defense Ministry spokesperson and reported by the Russian press. It is noteworthy that there were only two foreign visitors to Russia’s 73rd annual Victory Parade and its March of the Immortals: the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and Netanyahu.
When President Putin offered to pin the Ribbon of St. George to their jackets, Vučić refused. Netanyahu accepted. The Ribbon of St. George is a ribbon of remembrance of the participants in World War II and also is a nationalist symbol. Netanyahu also marched with President Putin and, like the nearly one million Russians who joined the march, carried a placard with a photo and name of a loved one lost in the World War II conflict.
Netanyahu’s presence in Moscow represents in the strongest possible terms that the two leaders have achieved an operational modus vivendi, allowing the Israeli and Russian militaries to work out a deconfliction system for their air forces and air defenses. Russia has consistently demonstrated its willingness to tolerate attacks by Israel against shipments of weapons and weapons depots that are either supporting the Iranians or Hezbollah.
Iran has to be alarmed that Russia and Israel are working in close collaboration in Syria. Iran has been pushing to add to the 10 permanent bases it has in Syria and now wants a naval port, but Assad has refused due to Russian objections. Israel would certainly object to an Iranian naval presence as well.
Iran’s strategic objective is to dominate an arc of countries from Iran, through Iraq, Lebanon and Syria and eventually Jordan as a powerful Shia front that would form the basis not only for Iran’s expansion but would put huge military pressure on Israel. Iran already has disproportionate influence in Iraq and has control of Lebanon through the Hezbollah. But Syria is far more important because of its proximity to Israel and the many installations Iran has built there.
The Russians have been under considerable pressure from Israel to control the Iranians or push them out. While the latter option is not likely, Iran’s threats to Saudi Arabia through its missile and nuclear programs, via interventions in Iraq and support of the Houthis in Yemen (including supplying missiles to the Houthis that are fired at Saudi Arabia) are very troublesome to the Russians.
The Russian economy only has two bright spots: arms sales, which expands Russia’s influence and helps bolster Russia’s underfunded military, and oil and gas exports, with exports to Europe and China significant to Russia’s economic survival. Consequently, the Russians need to maintain good relations with key players in the oil and gas market, especially Saudi Arabia. While Iran also is an oil exporter, it is well below the top 10 exporters.
The last thing Russia wants is an extended war in Syria that will eat up more of its resources and send home more Russian casualties, which would be regarded with considerable negativity on the home front. The restive Russian public is hungry for domestic economic growth and a reduction in military confrontations. Putin has already signaled he is going in that direction and is trying to reduce military expenditures.
Syria is a drain and it will get worse if the Iranians and Hezbollah stir up more trouble, particularly as ISIS and partners such as al-Nusra are all but defeated. As George Aiken the former Vermont Senator said about the costly Vietnam conflict, why don’t we just declare victory and leave? For the Russians in Syria, they would like to declare victory (and Putin tried to once before) but stay. From Russia’s perspective, Iran is an uncontrollable and increasingly irrational ally, especially the IRGC and the al-Quds force operating on Syrian territory.
Iran is dangerously exposed in Syria. Its elite al-Quds fighting force is there and would have long supply lines to maintain if it gets into an extended conflict with Israel. If the Russians cannot control the Iranians, Russia might decide to stand aside and let the Israelis annihilate the al-Quds force and the mercenaries Iran imported to fight in Syria, to reduce Iranian casualties.
The Iranians have to be aware that while there is a modus vivendi between Israel and Russia, it may also be the forthcoming key to a rapprochement between Washington and Russia. President Donald Trump has changed the dynamics of the great game by terminating the JCPOA Iran nuclear “arrangement.”
While Trump has been constrained in Washington by allegations of his administration’s alleged collusion with the Russians in somehow backing Russian election interference, Trump is playing a strong international role symbolized by the upcoming meeting between himself and Kim Jong-un. If even partially successful this will shift the balance of political support in Trump’s favor and give him a chance, with Israel’s possible assistance to approach the Russians on a number of major issues including nuclear arms control, Ukraine and Crimea and challenges to NATO. Iran could well pay the price if this develops.
Iran has been largely left without any challenge in its geopolitical march forward. No one knows what Iran would be like if directly challenged. Probably even the Iranians don’t know. Recent developments suggest now could be the time to find out.