Inspired by a monthlong stint of winter precipitation, Israelis have been flocking by the thousands to the Mount Hermon ski slope at the northern tip of the Golan Heights, just over the border from Syria.
But for skiers on Jan. 20, any sense of escapism was quickly dispelled as an Iron Dome rocket drew a plume of smoke while streaking across the blue sky to intercept an Iranian surface-to-surface missile fired from Syria.
The Iranian missile salvo was a reprisal for an Israeli attack on targets near the Damascus airport and, within hours, it was followed by a second Israeli attack that left some two dozen dead, with Iranians among the fatalities.
In bringing Israelis back to the harsh realities of the Middle East, the flare-up seemed a forewarning of a looming clash between Israel and Iran — not over Tehran’s nuclear program, but over Iran’s growing entrenchment in Syria as the civil war there winds down.
In recent years, Israel has warned global powers about an effort by Iran to establish a new front along the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border with the help of Shiite militias and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The recent exchange, however, highlighted how Iran’s military presence in and around Damascus could be explosive, said Joel Parker, a Syria expert at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and Africa Studies at Tel Aviv University.
In addition to storing military equipment in the Syrian capital and using the city as a route to ship arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran’s close cooperation with and support for Syria means it is likely to be present at sensitive locations like the airport, the Syrian military headquarters and the presidential compound, he said.
“For Iran, their commitment to [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is going to require them to be in Damascus. From an Israeli perspective, Damascus is too close,” he said in a phone interview. “If Israel continues to attack Damascus, or if Iran continues to put their heavy equipment in Damascus, then we could definitely see Damascus emerge as the epicenter of an Israel-Iran conflict.”
Last week’s flare-up in the Golan put questions about Israel’s policy toward Iran in Syria, and the role of international superpowers in the standoff, front and center at an annual three-day conference of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) taking place this week.
Despite initial relief that Israel’s reprisal strike ended the round of violence without Israeli casualties or rupturing Israel’s cooperation with Russia, experts warned against complacency.
“We shouldn’t delude ourselves — it can all flip. We saw this with the missile attack at the Hermon,” said Amir Eshel, an ex-commander of the Israeli air force.
With the U.S. planning to withdraw its ground forces from Syria, and Russia firmly in control, some wondered about the long-term utility of Israel’s military understandings with Russia to avoid a conflict and the approach to Iran in Syria. Though that coordination has allowed Israel to attack Iran and Hezbollah even as Moscow controls the skies, Israeli experts complained that Moscow is ultimately an ally of Iran and Syria, and that Israel cannot kick Iran out of Syria on its own.
“There is no [Israeli] military capability to extract them from Syria,” said Eshel, the former Israeli air force commander. “Only Russia can get Iran out of Syria. … There’s a very big chance they’ll turn on us.”
The anxiousness came as the Russian deputy foreign minister and envoy for Syria visited Israel for talks with government officials.
Amos Yadlin, a former intelligence chief and the director of the INSS, said at the conference that Russia and the Iranians share the goals of getting the U.S. out of the Middle East and preserving Assad’s rule.
“Our cooperation with Russia is excellent tactically, but it’s mistaken strategically,” he said. “We don’t have a real friendship.”
To be sure, analysts believe that neither Israel nor Iran is interested in a wider confrontation in the medium term. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dogged by corruption allegations and faces an April 9 parliamentary election. Iran, meanwhile, is struggling with economic sanctions and doesn’t want to risk its presence in Syria through a war with Israel.
Instead, the clashes are understood as a cat-and-mouse maneuvering aimed at testing and establishing the red lines of Iranian involvement in Syria.
“They are playing, but at the same time neither has an interest in a major escalation,” said Eyal Zisser a history professor and Syria expert at Tel Aviv University, speaking by phone. “They are sending messages in the form of attacks, but they are nothing major.”
Netanyahu has won praise for avoiding a major conflict with the Russians so far, and for acting to keep Iran from establishing a forward presence on the Golan border. Experts say Israel has considerably hindered Iran’s efforts in Syria. The government has also been praised for its recent operation to destroy Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels from Lebanon into Israel.
But Netanyahu has been helpless to stop the U.S. pullout from Syria. The decision by the Trump administration to withdraw American troops is expected to hurt Israel’s deterrence of Iran going forward, said Zisser. “The U.S. withdrawal encourages Iran. It should be easier for them in Syria now that the U.S. is not there,” he said.
As experts debated how fast and comprehensive the pullback would actually turn out to be, INSS’ Ram Ben Barak, former senior official in the Mossad and a politician in the centrist Yesh Atid Party, criticized the government for not making more of an effort to get the U.S. to keep its ground forces in Syria.
But speaking by phone, Dore Gold, a sometimes foreign policy adviser to Netanyahu and a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, insisted that the U.S. could still deter Iran with military assets in the region outside of Syria.
“I would not write off the U.S.,” Gold said. “The U.S. is still a significant military power in the Middle East, with a continuing military presence in Iraq and with air bases all over the region, including the presence of aircraft carriers both in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. So anyone saying that America is a factor doesn’t know the details.”