The Pentagon released a video, on February 13, of a Russian T-72 tank being destroyed by an American drone attack in Syria, the most recent in a series of wrist-slaps intended to persuade Moscow to distance itself from Iran’s ambitions in Syria.

This follows an engagement with a force reportedly composed of Russian nationals working as “contractors” for the Assad government – an engagement in which American special forces killed 200 combatants and injured many others. The Russian contractors and a Russian-built tank reportedly attacked Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) armed and advised by the US, and a Pentagon spokesman said that the US acted in self-defense.

Russia is not the target. On the contrary, US Defense Secretary James Mattis went out of his way last week to emphasize that Washington does not seek a confrontation with Russia, telling the Al-Monitor news site: “There were elements in this very complex battlespace that the Russians do not have control of. You can’t ask Russia to de-conflict something they don’t control.”

Russia has kept an official distance from irregular forces, giving the United States maneuvering room to attack them without directly compromising Russian interests. Washington’s objective is not to overthrow the Assad regime or to eject Russia from Syria, but rather to raise the cost of Russia’s support for Iran to the point that Moscow will allow the US and its allies to push Iranian forces out of Syria.

To some extent, that is already happening. The most important fact about the downing of an Israeli F-16 during a raid on Syrian air defenses on February 11 is that Russia had no hand in the matter. Israel has stated that its warplanes have flown about 2,000 sorties in Syria during the past two years, so it is surprising that no Israeli aircraft have been lost until now.

In retaliation for Iran’s reported attempt to penetrate Israeli airspace with a drone, Israel targeted Syria’s air defense system, and the Israeli military claims to have wiped out half of it. Syria threw every available anti-aircraft missile at the attacking Israeli jets, and an older Russian-made A-5 or A-7 exploded close enough to the F-16 to disable it. The injured Israeli pilots bailed out over Israeli territory.

Russia has installed its top-of-the-line S-400 system in Syria to protect its own forces, but it has not used it against Israel’s incursions. The S-400 is a formidable system, able to engage dozens of targets at a range of hundreds of kilometers, and could probably sweep the Syrian skies if Russia wanted it to. The fact that Russia has given Israel a free pass over Syria indicates that it will support Iran only if there is no penalty for doing so.

Russia does not want to find out whether Israel has the capability to destroy its S-400 installations on the ground, as Israeli air force officers have threatened in meetings with their Russian counterparts. Israel, for that matter, has no objection to a Russian presence in Syria, or the survival of the Assad regime, as long as Iran does not build up a permanent military presence in Syria.

Israeli security forces walk next to the remains of an F-16 Israeli war plane near the Israeli village of Harduf, Israel on February 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Herzie Shapira
Israeli security forces examine the remains of an F-16 Israeli warplane near the Israeli village of Harduf, Israel, on February 10, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Herzie Shapira

In that respect, Israel appears to have the wholehearted backing of the United States against Iran. “Israel has an absolute right to defend itself, and I think that’s what happened yesterday,” Mattis said on February 12. “They don’t have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue. So when Syria, which has made no … excuse for what they’re doing alongside Iran, when they are providing throughout for Iran to give weapons, including more sophisticated weapons, to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Israel has an absolute right to defend themselves. It is interesting that everywhere we find trouble in the Middle East, you find the same thing behind it. Whether it be in Yemen or Beirut, or in Syria, in Iraq, you always find Iran engaged.”

Some Israeli strategists now believe that it would be in Jerusalem’s interest to fight a big war sooner rather than later. Iran’s game, the Israelis argue, is to use salami tactics to emplace ever-more-sophisticated ballistic missiles close to Israel’s borders. Iran’s ally, Hezbollah, has a reported inventory of 130,000 rockets and missiles, many of which have advanced guidance systems and the range to hit any target in Israel. Such targets include the chemical refineries in Haifa and storage tanks in Ashkelon, as well as population centers.

Israel’s missile defense system was able to neutralize the crude ballistic missiles fired in the past from Gaza, but could be overwhelmed in a new conflict. If Iran were to establish bases in Syria, move advanced weapons close to Israel’s border, and infiltrate such weapons into Gaza, Israel would eventually face a three-fronted war.

It is possible that Washington might offer additional incentives to Moscow to use its influence to persuade Iran to stand down, perhaps including some understanding about the Crimea

Israeli military doctrine states that if Hezbollah begins firing missiles at Israeli targets, the launchers should be eliminated. Hezbollah has embedded those launchers into civilian areas under its control, however, and Israeli efforts to neutralize the rockets would, according to one Israeli planner, lead to a “Dresden,” referring to the 1944 British raid on the German city that killed about 25,000 people in a firestorm. Hezbollah is an instrument of Iranian policy, but it is also a popular militia, and its civilian base is located in areas that might come under devastating attack were it to use its rocket arsenal against Israel.

The elements of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operating in Syria, and the militias they control — including Shia Muslims from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan — have no such compunction. If Iran positions its forces to fire large numbers of advanced missiles at Israel from Syria, Israel’s deterrence is far weaker than in the case of Lebanon. Iran is prepared to absorb military casualties, especially if those occur among the mercenary forces it deploys in Syria.

That is why Israel is far more concerned about an Iranian military presence in Syria than it is about Hezbollah. The 2006 Northern War occasioned by Hezbollah rocket fire into Israel ended in a standoff, because the United States ordered Israel to pull its punches. Hezbollah, in the interim, has accumulated a much larger and more power arsenal, but Israel’s American ally is less likely to restrain it from devastating retaliation.

For the time being, Iran does not want a war in Syria. After the December and January protests in 80 Iranian cities, the regime feels pressure from popular discontent over the diversion of resources from an ailing internal economy to a foreign military adventure. If the Iranian regime were to be humiliated militarily in Syria, the effect would be similar to Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps still has control of most of the guns and the money, but a major setback might weaken its political position fatally. Economic misery and spontaneous protests do not bring down regimes, but military defeats do.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Kremlin for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visits the Kremlin for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 28, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

The IRGC has the difficult task of demonstrating its prowess against Israel in order to justify expenditures in Syria of anywhere between US$5bn and US$20bn a year, without actually provoking a war that it might lose. And if Hezbollah engaged Israel and suffered massive losses— civilian as well as military — the Shia cause would suffer a devastating loss with nothing to show for it but a few hundred dead Israeli civilians. That probably explains Iran’s dispatch of a drone into Israeli airspace, as a test of Israeli responses. Israel responded “disproportionately,” and punished the Assad regime by eliminating much of its air defense capacity whilst also destroying the Iranian command post that launched the drone. Notably, Israel did so with American applause.

Washington would probably like Moscow to inform its Iranian partners that if they use Syria as a base to threaten Israel, they cannot count on Russian support. Iran then might quietly withdraw its forces to some distance from the Israeli border and de-escalate.

It is also possible that Washington might offer additional incentives to Moscow to use its influence to persuade Iran to stand down, perhaps including some understanding about the Crimea. There are no static scenarios, however, but a series of negotiations in which none of the players knows how the others will respond, or how one player will respond to others’ responses. Although all players would prefer to avoid war, it is far from certain that war can be avoided.