On the night of May 9th, the blows traded between Iran and Israel brought the immediate possibility of a full scale war to the world’s attention. Since Iran’s revolution in 1979, the two previous aligned countries fought each other indirectly, through proxy groups and states friendly to either side. Mysterious assassinations, malicious hacking, and covert operations added to these tactics. However, not until this year did they attack directly. These attacks took place near the Israeli-Syrian border, which, thanks to Iranian presence on the Syrian side, will most likely be the location of a direct war.
Until less than four decades ago, Iran and Israel were allies. The pro-West Pahlavi dynasty pursued good relations with the United States, and other pro-West countries. However, all this changed in 1979, when a violent revolution engulfed the country. The United States, and, by extension, Israel, were blamed for all of Iran’s woes. As a result, Iran, now an Islamic republic, was transformed into one of the most virulently anti-Israel states in the Middle East (which isn’t a very pro-Israel region to begin with). Since then, Iran has been busy funding proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, and, in recent years, working on a nuclear weapons program (presumably to counter Israel’s). Meanwhile, Israel fought these proxies several times, and through clandestine methods, attempted to slow Iran’s nuclear development.
After the revolution, Iran developed a unique military system. The conventional Iranian Army, “Artesh”, defends Iran internally. However, the IRGC, the revolutionary guards (“Sepah”), is tasked with exporting the ideals of the revolution. It is fanatically loyal to the ideals of the 1979 revolution (as its leaders interpret them), and frequently works with the Iranian religious leadership. That being said, it is completely unaccountable to the civilian government. It has been steadily increasing its presence in Syria, seemingly looking to use Syria as a forward operating base in a war with Israel. However, the IRGC is not designed to fight against an actual military, but to help proxies attack civilians. This means it has a hard time defending itself from air strikes or military incursions.
As part of its mission to “export the revolution”, the IRGC has been busy setting up shop in countries across the Middle East, either on its own, or through proxies. In Lebanon, Hezbollah acts as an extension of the IRGC in politics, and maintains a formidable military force more powerful than that of the national government. Meanwhile, in Yemen, the IRGC supports the Houthis (a militant group that espouses a similar brand of Islam to that of the Iranian government) in their effort to control the entire country. And while Iraq has a central government installed by the United States, the IRGC has made headway into Baghdad as well, through the support of proxy (pro-Iraqi government) militias and taking advantage of religious similarities yet again. Finally, the IRGC’s Syrian campaign, supposedly designed only to support the Syrian government, gave the IRGC unprecedented leeway there.
Syria is already home to a civil war between the Syrian government (backed by Iran and Russia), rebel groups (backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia), and the Kurds (backed by the United States). The IRGC took advantage of this instability to build bases in Syria (although Iran denies that these bases exist). While the Iranian government is mostly looking to set up Syria as a stable puppet state, the IRGC, and the commander of the elite Quds (“Jerusalem”) Force, Qasem Soleimani, in particular, is happy to keep the war going in order to attack Israel.
The recent conflict began when a drone launched from an IRGC base was shot down over Israel on February 10th. Originally, it was assumed that the drone was on an espionage mission. However, Israeli military intelligence later revealed that it was carrying explosives. Assuming that this is true, it would be the first time Iran even attempted to attack Israel openly and directly. To counter this apparent attack, on April 9th, Israeli Air Force (IAF) jets bombed T4, the IRGC base in Syria where the drone originated from. At T4, seven members of the Quds Force were killed in the attack (including Col. Mehdi Dehghan, commander of the drone unit). Soleimani didn’t wait long to make his feelings about this bombing known. Beginning on May 9th, the Quds Force launched rockets at Israeli military bases near Syria. In response, Israel (apparently) bombed every single IRGC base in Syria. The threat of a full war became ever more real.
Of course, it is often noted that a war, whether in Syria or elsewhere, is entirely not in the geopolitical interest of either Iran or Israel. However, IRGC ideology and Israeli security concerns appear to be making a clash in Syria inevitable. During said war, Israel would take advantage of its geographic proximity to Syria to launch its famed precision airstrikes against IRGC bases. This would severely hinder the IRGC’s ability to wage war. In addition, closer relations with Russia could mean that the Syrian government (supported by Russia as well as Iran) would be encouraged not to intervene. Overall, this would mean that Israel would at least attempt to ensure that Syria doesn’t become the rocket threat that it allowed Hezbollah in Lebanon to become. However, regarding Hezbollah, it would likely attack Israel simultaneously with the IRGC. In addition, Hamas in Gaza could do the same, if the IRGC would offer a generous enough military aid offer (relations between Hamas and the IRGC were strained since Hamas refused to support the Syrian government, however, military aid could change this). As such, Israel would be facing a threat on three fronts.
One thing is clear: this won’t be a traditional war. Territory will not be exchanged (Syria doesn’t belong to the IRGC in the first place, while the IRGC has no capabilities to mount a land invasion of Israel). Instead, there are only two possible outcomes: either the IRGC will be able to make its presence in Syria permanent, or it will be driven out by Israeli bombing. Of course, there is no telling how this will go down. Now, more than ever, does the situation in the region depend on Israel’s and the IRGC’s next moves. The future of the Middle East in general, and Iran in particular, is uncertain, but a war between Iran and Israel can only contribute to this instability.
Originally published at thelakta.com on May 13, 2018.