Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its most loyalist militant group, Hezbollah, have fought directly in Syria in support of the Assad regime since 2012. The Iranians have invested heavily in Syria militarily and economically because Tehran believes its alliance with Syria is the oldest and most durable in the region. Preserving Syria’s geostrategic orientation as part of the axis of resistance is an objective universally shared among Iranian leaders. It serves as the centerpiece of the “forward military outpost” strategy against the United States and Israel. This stand of Iran has now come openly in front of the people because Syria is fast becoming a battlefield between Iran and Israel. A senior adviser to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was recently killed in an Israeli airstrike on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to Iranian state media reports. Sayyid Raji Muhsawi was one of the top IRGC commanders in Syria. Additionally, Muhsawi was one of the oldest IRGC commanders in Syria and Lebanon, having operated in the region since the 1980s. In a statement read on Iranian state TV, the IRGC said that “the aggressive and brutal Zionist regime will have to pay for this crime”. It is expected that the Iranians will retaliate to avenge this huge loss and an escalation of the conflict is now almost certain.
This assassination of a senior Iranian operative did not happen suddenly. For some time now, Israel has been attacking Iranian targets located in Syria in response to the attacks on Israeli territory by Iranian fighters based in Syria. Israel has previously launched several strikes inside Syrian territory in response to rocket and mortar attacks from the country. Israel has also carried out airstrikes on Syria’s two main airports, Damascus and Aleppo, putting both out of service for some time. Since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, Syria has also been facing its effects. But now Iran is actively using Syria as a second front against Israel to boost the morale of its supported terrorist organizations in Gaza. One of Tehran’s most important objectives since the beginning of the Syrian conflict was to develop a strategy to encircle Israel. To achieve this, the Iranians deployed troops and military equipment along the Syrian-Israeli border, and especially on the outskirts of the Golan Heights.
Large forces and allied militias from Hezbollah, Iran’s most trusted proxy group, have been deployed along the Lebanese-Syrian border. Where there are large parts of Shia communities and shrines and near Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah has also deployed fighters inside Syria, including in the cities of Damascus and Homs. Hezbollah fighters have been reported as far as Deir al-Zour Governorate in the middle Euphrates River valley. Recently, Hezbollah forces have deployed to Syrian military targets near the Israeli-Syrian border. The purpose of this deployment is to encircle Israel on multiple fronts. The Iranians had previously tried to target Israel from Syrian territory.
The most notable attempt in this regard was that of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force, who tried to respond to Israel’s active defense campaign by firing rockets at Israel from a truck-mounted launcher in Syria. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) responded by destroying more than 50 Iranian targets in Syria. Israel’s fierce air campaigns briefly demoralized Iran but the Iranians began to look for other ways to attack Israel from Syrian territory. Iran has worked closely with Syrian President Assad’s forces and the Syrian arms industry to ensure that its future activities in Syria remain hidden.
The Iranians’ expanded presence, particularly in southern Syria, has already strained Israel’s threat perception. As a result, Israeli attacks on Iranian-allied targets are increasing. Israel is pursuing an aggressive defensive strategy, determined to keep the Iranian threat away from its neighborhood in Syria. This could trigger a new cycle of tension between Iran and Israel in Syria, which could have serious implications for the entire region. The Syrian regime should understand that if this ongoing war between Tel Aviv and Tehran in Syria is not controlled. Then Israel will not hesitate to attack Syrian government military positions where the Iranians have infiltrated.
Iran’s actions are jeopardizing the Assad regime’s victory. As Syria’s internal conflict is ending. The Syrian government should turn its attention to the enormous task of reconstruction, and not be dragged into any war with Israel. But Iran appears confident and willing to take such risks, and believes it does not need any permission from Damascus to continue its destructive activities. The Iranians want an unstable and conflict-ridden Syria that they can easily control and exploit. It is now up to the Syrian government to decide whether they want to remain a silent spectator and let Iran drag their country into yet another conflict or intervene and take charge.
(The author is a columnist on the Middle East and Af-Pak region and editor of geopolitical news agency ViewsAround.) [email protected] can be contacted at)