The same day Trump announced he was pulling out of the nuclear deal, Israel launched several attacks on Iranian-militias and regime-held areas in Syria, signalling a potential escalation between the two regional foes.
After US President Donald Trump announced he was going to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal on May 9, the Israeli military said it detected "irregular activity" by Iranian forces in southern Syria and called on the settlers of the occupied Golan Heights to prepare bomb shelters for a potential attack.
However, when a number of attacks came soon after, it was not from Iranian militias or Syrian regime forces, but an Israeli attack into an army base at Kisweh, south of regime-held Damascus. Fifteen pro-regime fighters were killed in the attack, including eight Iranian nationals.
The next day, it was reported that Iranian forces fired 20 rockets into Israeli positions in the occupied Golan, to which Israel retaliated with what it said was its "most extensive strike" in Syria in decades. There were no Israeli casualties from the attack, which Israel accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, or Al Quds forces of carrying out.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that 27 pro-regime fighters were killed, including 11 Iranians after Israel's strikes, which Israel said were aimed at military targets.
Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman announced on Thursday that "almost all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria" had been hit by Israel, and that none of the Iranian attacks aimed at Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights reached their aim.
The same day, Iran-backed Houthi militias in Yemen launched ballistic missiles into the capital of Israel's de facto ally and Iran's other regional enemy, Saudi Arabia. All of the missiles were intercepted by Saudi systems.
Preventing a permanent Iranian presence
As the Syrian war is drawing to an end, each of the players on the ground are trying to claim and cement their spheres of influence, as they do in the rest of the region; from Lebanon to Yemen. As one of the primary backers of the Syrian regime, Iran dominates Syria on the ground, more so than the regime’s other ally, Russia, which controls Syria’s airspace and conducts most of its operations via air strikes.
A strong Iranian presence on the ground in Syria, particularly near Israel and the geostrategic Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is one of Israel’s foremost security concerns.
“We see the Iranian involvement in Syria as a menace, as a threat to Israel’s security,” former deputy director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Oded Eran told TRT World. “We have a very, very negative experience from the situation in Lebanon. Hezbollah has become very powerful [actor], and powerful not only in Lebanese terms, but in regional terms. Israel cannot afford to repeat the situation in Syria, which seems to be the strategic goal of Iran.”
With its strikes, Israel does not expect to stop the “political relationship between Iran and Damascus,” Eran said. “This is a given, and there is nothing to be done on this issue. We are talking about the military, [preventing the] building of a base in Syria.”
Last week’s attacks were not new; Israel had been aiming at Iranian and Iran-backed militias' positions in Syria for several months, including the ones in Aleppo, Hama, the T4 airbase, Masyaf, Damascus International Airport and other areas.
In the weeks leading up to Trump’s nuclear deal announcement, several high-level Israeli officials threatened Iran, going to so far as to threaten to assassinate Assad if “Assad allows Iran to turn Syria into a military vanguard against [Israel], to attack [Israel] from Syrian territory.”
But even when the Syrian regime downed an Israeli F-16 in northern Israel in February, and Israel shot down an Iranian drone allegedly on its territory, both Iran and Israel had signalled that it would not lead to a wider conflict in Syria.
Even after Israel launched a heavy air raid in April, in northern Syria’s Aleppo and Hama that killed 26, the majority of them Iranian, the deaths were denied by Iran, which called the claims “baseless.”
Getting Russian support
One day after Trump’s announcement, Netanyahu visited Putin to discuss regional issues.
“Russia from the point of view of Israel is the central actor in present Syria,” former director of the Strategic Planning Division in the Planning Branch of the Israeli Army, Shlomo Brom, told TRT World. “I believe that the purpose of this visit ... is to deal with two issues; first of all convince Russia to put pressure on Iran, and the regime to stop building the Iranian bases in Syria.”
“The other purpose of dialogue is to discuss ways of avoiding friction between the Israeli military forces and the Russian military forces in Syria because while the Israeli attacks are in Syria and the closer they are to places with deployments of Russian forces, the greater the possibility of friction that is not wanted by the two sides.”
Experts familiar with the issues point out that Tel Aviv and Moscow share some positions regarding Iran’s clout in Syria, which has pushed the two countries to act together. Before their May 9 meeting, Netanyahu and Putin had already spoken several times. For instance, it was reported in March that Russia prevented Iran from setting up a waterside base at Tartus, a move that was welcomed by Israel. Likewise, other reports show how Russia is attempting to limit Iranian investments, amid increasing talks of reconstruction.
In a critical move, after Netanyahu’s visit, Russia announced that it would no longer supply the regime with S-300 ground-to-surface missile system, a delivery that Moscow had promised Assad and against which Israel put significant lobbying efforts.
But Brom also acknowledged the limits of Russian influence on the ground. “Iran also has some leverage because Russia and Iran have a common goal, which is the preservation of the sovereignty of the Assad regime ... So the two are dependent on each other,” he said.
In addition to air strikes on Iranian and Iran-backed positions all over Syria, Israel has also had long-term involvement in Syria’s south.
In addition to medical equipment, food, diapers, medicine and humanitarian aid to rebel and opposition-held areas in Syria’s south, Israel has also been supplying arms and military support to southern Free Syrian Army groups and others to form an opposition “buffer zone” between the occupied Golan Heights and regime-held territories, where Iranian-backed militias are active.
Israel has also admitted rebel fighters and civilians into Israeli hospitals for treatment.
"There are connections between the Israeli military and opposition organisations that are operating on the other side of the border in the Syrian Golan Heights. In the framework of this relationship is a kind of deal between the two sides. Israel will supply the opposition with assistance ... and on the other side these opposition organisations will detect attacks aimed against Israel," explained Brom.
"That was the kind of [deal] between the two sides, and this went along for a long time. But now because of the growing power of the regime with the assistance of Russia [and] Iran, there is concern that ... these elements will try to take control of Syrian area at the Israeli border."
Even though Israel maintains that it is not interfering in Syria, various sources show Israel’s deepening involvement, not just through humanitarian and arms assistance and air strikes, but also through the establishment of a deeper "safe zone", extending 40 km beyond the occupied Golan, with an Israeli-trained Syrian security force for protection. The Intercept reported that Israel’s actions signalled greater involvement in civil administration, though this was a point denied by Eran, who underlined that Israel was confining its actions to "humanitarian purposes and staying away from the situation that erupted after 2011."
"However, we will and we said we will not agree [sic] tolerate on the other side of the border ... the building of infrastructure, military infrastructure, which will be directed against Israel in the near future," he added.
Brom said he believed Israel would eventually reconcile itself with the regime taking control of the region near the occupied Golan, "as long as the regime – and that is the message that is consistently delivered to it – will not allow the deployment of Iranian elements … in this area."
In addition to security concerns, analysts also point to domestic troubles as another reason behind Israel’s increasing involvement in Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is caught in several corruption probes that threaten his position and hold on power. These analysts say Israel’s military actions help to distract from the corruption allegations that involve him and his family.
Reuters reported that, after striking Iranian positions in Syria, and the news of the US pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal, Netanyahu’s popularity increased among Israelis. It is likely to increase further after the US embassy's move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which has been widely condemned by the international community.