Wednesday’s statement by the Iranian military’s chief of staff, Major General Mohammad Bagheri, that it is “not acceptable for the Zionist regime to violate Syria any time it wants” indicates that Israel and Iran may be heading toward a collision over Tehran’s expanding influence in Syria, Jerusalem Post reports.
The immediate background to the statement was the Israeli airstrike in Syria on Monday that destroyed a Syrian anti-aircraft battery in response to its firing of a missile at an Israeli plane on a reconnaissance mission in Lebanon.
According to a leading Iran scholar, Meir Litvak of Tel Aviv University, Bagheri actually is threatening that Iran will no longer tolerate the airstrikes in Syria that Israel has mounted to destroy advanced weapons systems on their way to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“They want to build this land bridge to Lebanon so they can transfer accurate, long-range missiles to Hezbollah, which will be a game changer. Now, he’s threatening that they will no longer be silent about Israeli attempts to prevent this reinforcement of Hezbollah,” Litvak said.
Litvak said he does not know if the perceived threat will be translated into action, but that it is a real possibility and could take the form of Shi’ite militiamen firing rockets into the Israeli-held part of Golan Heights.
“The direction of Iranian policy in Syria might lead to an armed confrontation with Israel. Iran recruited thousands of Shi’a fighters who fought for the Assad regime. Now that the war is won, there’s a danger they will turn them against Israel,” he said.
According to Litvak, Iran is grooming its proxies to play a role in Syria and some say openly that they want to confront Israel.
“If this is their aim, then clearly there is a risk of confrontation. That Iran is trying to build a wider Hezbollah front against Israel from both Lebanon and Syria increases the risk of confrontation,” he said.
After pouring out billions of dollars and incurring casualties to save the Assad regime, Tehran is now trying to consolidate economic control through concessions and contracts. The talks in Damascus, where Bagheri was also due to meet with Assad, were intended to cover a variety of topics likely including continued Iranian supply of weaponry; what comes next after the defeat of Islamic State and how to safeguard Iran and Hezbollah’s interests in that context; and how to restore coordination between Iranian forces and pro-Iranian militias and the Syrian regime.
The key question is to what extent Moscow will check the growing Iranian influence.
“Russia is the dominant actor in Syria and it can decide how much freedom of action it will allow the Iranians. But my estimation is that even if there will be limitations, they won’t be substantial and will relate only to the presence of Iran and Hezbollah in the area close to the border with Israel,” says Raz Zimmt, an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
According to Zimmt, if the reports in the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper that the Russians had agreed to keep the Iranian militias 10 to 15 kilometers away from the border on the Golan is right, it means that Iran can act from 30 kilometers from the border and this is a very problematic scenario for Israel.
“I can’t say if this will force Israel to act in an offensive way, but it’s very clear that the Iranian and Hezbollah presence creates greater friction,” he pointed.