Opinion: Storm clouds gather in Middle East

Andrew Richter
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While much of the world’s attention over the past month has been directed toward the battle over the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, recent incidents of domestic terrorism in the U.S., and the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, it may have been easy to miss an ongoing development in the Middle East that portends a major crisis in the near future.

That development has been the extension of Iranian influence throughout Syria. Iran has been building military bases and establishing supply lines to ensure that its client actors in the region, in particular Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, have access to its latest weapons.

"While Iran was always a supporter of Arab attempts to push the Jewish state into the sea, geography ensured that Iranian threats remained just that."

For its part, Israel has not just watched this unfold, as the Israeli Air Force has launched dozens of strikes. A few weeks back, in response to yet another Israeli strike over the country, a Syrian missile battery was fired and accidentally shot down a Russian reconnaissance aircraft, causing over a dozen Russian casualties. The incident immediately sparked a diplomatic crisis between Russia and Israel, countries that had been experiencing improved relations over the past few years.

The incident also led to Russia’s decision to deploy the advanced S-300 missile system to Syria (a threat that had been made several times before, but had never been carried out), a system that will undoubtedly complicate future Israeli military planning over the country. In this regard, it might be noted that assuming the system is manned by Russian military personnel, the possibility now exists of significant Russian casualties in the event of an Israeli strike against one of these sites.

However real that possibility is, though, that is not the crisis that this observer is most concerned about (although this prospect is both real and growing). Rather, the most disturbing possibility is that of direct military conflict between Israel and Iran.

Perhaps some context might be helpful. Despite the array of hostile statements that each country has made towards the other for decades now, the reality is that the two states have never directly fought. While Iran was always a vocal supporter of the various Arab attempts to push the Jewish state into the sea, geography (and perhaps some degree of common sense) always ensured that Iranian threats remained just that.

But with Iran now doing everything in its power to establish a military presence in Syria and extend its regional influence, everything is in flux. Syria shares a border with Israel, and was a key participant in all four major Arab-Israeli wars. And, of course, in the 1967 conflict Israel acquired the Golan Heights, territory that Syria remains committed to eventually re-acquiring, one way or another.

In the aftermath of the recent Israeli strike that led to the downing of the Russian plane, Israel made a startling claim -- it said that it had conducted approximately 200 air strikes over Syria in the past few years, a number far larger than most analysts had thought. Just why Israel chose to make this announcement remains a bit of a mystery (Jerusalem is not generally in the habit of boasting about its military accomplishments), but many believe it was an attempt to send a clear signal to Tehran that it will not accept the growing Iranian influence there.

Should Israel continue its air strikes over Syria, and should more of them target Iranian facilities and supply lines, pressure will undoubtedly grow on Tehran to respond. And the most likely military response would be for Iran to use some of its increasingly capable medium-range missiles, missiles that can strike virtually any target in Israel, including the nuclear plant at Dimona and the large civilian apartment blocks in Tel Aviv.

While Israel has the world’s most advanced anti-missile defense system (which includes three tiers, one of which is the vaunted Iron Dome), an interception at this distance has never been tried before, and the chances of success are not high. Thus, an Iranian missile strike could cause enormous devastation and widespread civilian casualties.

This is the prospect that should keep strategic analysts awake at night, for a successful attack against a major Israeli target will almost certainly trigger a massive counter-strike. No one should doubt Israeli deterrence – indeed, no Arab state has done so for at least 40 years – but if Iran were to cause significant casualties, the Israeli response would be over-whelming and painful (and could give Israel an excuse to finally strike the country’s nuclear facilities). That counter-strike could, in turn, spark a wider regional conflict involving not only Iran’s client actors but possibly other states as well. And that conflict could easily spiral out of control.

Dark clouds are indeed gathering in the Middle East. It is not too late to avert the approaching storm, but the only realistic way to do so is if Iran was to have a sudden change of heart and re-consider its entire Syria strategy, a prospect that seems highly unlikely. Observers and analysts should immediately start paying greater attention, while those in the region might want to start looking for cover.

Andrew Richter is an associate professor of political science at the University of Windsor.

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