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The shadow war between Israel and Iran takes center stage

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The rumblings of an open conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria are growing louder. When President Trump launched yet another one-off missile salvo against the Syrian regime, it came on the heels of a suspected April 9 Israeli strike on an Iranian facility at a Syrian air base, which drew howls of condemnation from the regime's patrons in Moscow and Tehran.

Though Israel didn't acknowledge responsibility for the attack, it fit a familiar pattern. Since 2012, the Israelis are believed to have launched more than 100 strikes on suspected Iranian-linked positions in Syria. Israeli officials privately argue that these measures are necessary to prevent a permanent Iranian threat on their borders and stymie the flow of weaponry to Iran's Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah.

“No matter the price, we will not allow a noose to form around us,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel Radio over the weekend. But he cautioned against talk of outright hostilities. “I hope not," he said when asked whether war was imminent. “I think that our primary role is to prevent war, and that requires concrete, real deterrence as well as readiness to act."

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made similar appeals for calm in a Sunday interview with CBS News, though he accused the Israelis of escalating “tension by violating Syrian airspace."

“I do not believe that we are headed towards regional war. But I do believe that, unfortunately, Israel has continued its violations with international law, hoping to be able to do it with impunity because of the U.S. support and trying to find smokescreens to hide behind,” Zarif said.

Still, Zarif warned that Israel was playing a risky game. “They should expect that if they continue to violate territorial integrity of other states, there'll be consequences," he said. “The easiest answer would be to stop — to stop these acts of aggression, to stop these incursions."

But the Israelis have made clear that an entrenched Iranian presence in Syria marks a new red line. They point to the new threat of Iranian drones, potentially armed with explosives, entering Israeli airspace, as well as the old threat of rockets launched from southern Lebanon. The April 9 strike, according to one account, was Israel's first direct attack on Iranian equipment and personnel and killed a senior Iranian drone commander.

Last week, the Israeli military leaked details and satellite images of the existence of an Iranian “air force" in Syria, including civilian planes they claimed were ferrying shipments of arms. The leak was supposed to signal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the powerful military organization that dominates Iran's foreign policy decisions, that Israel had new targets already in sight should the Iranians or their proxies attack.

From the Iranian perspective, their presence in Syria is a legitimate defense of their beleaguered ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And they see their capacity to threaten Israel from next door as a potential deterrent against a long-standing regional foe.

“Israeli leaders frequently threaten to bomb Iran, so having strong military proxies near Israel’s borders gives Iran some protection," wrote Ben Hubbard and David Halbfinger of the New York Times. “If Israel attacks Iran, the thinking goes, it knows it can expect a painful response from Hezbollah in Lebanon, and perhaps from other militias now operating in Syria."

The deepening tensions come at a time of growing discontent within the Islamic Republic. A tanking economy has blown the lid on popular frustration with the regime and even prompted Zarif's putative boss, President Hassan Rouhani, to complain about the costly war effort in Syria. But the prospect of broader confrontation with Israel — and the likely upcoming drama over Iran's nuclear deal with world powers — may persuade regime hard-liners that now is the time to circle the wagons.

“The shadow war has come to light after the decision by the Iranian leadership to proceed with the IRGC’s plans to establish permanent bases in Syria. This was not a unanimous decision," wrote Anshel Pfeffer in the Times of London. “The faction in Tehran led by the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, is in favor of investing in Iran’s domestic economy the huge amounts of money these bases will cost. But the IRGC has the ear of the nation’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and it is keen to capitalize on the investment it has made in propping up the Assad regime for the past seven years."

The way forward is treacherous. “Iran is determined to entrench its positions in Syria, and Israel is determined to prevent them," said Amos Yadlin, a former commander of Israeli military intelligence, to Pfeffer.

He suggested that Russia, whose forces help prop up the regime's air defenses and whose diplomats are key interlocutors to both the Iranians and the Israelis, will play a critical role. “Conflict is inevitable unless Putin steps in to prevent it," Yadlin said. But recent events suggest that the Russians have limited influence over Iran and are more concerned about reinforcing the Syrian regime.

At the same time, some foreign policy figures in Washington seem keen on letting Israel continue its covert campaign against the Iranians. They see Israeli strikes as necessary at a time when President Trump wants to disengage from the Syrian conflict and outsource the stabilization of the country to Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals.

But other experts contend that this does not amount to a real strategy. “There is a pathway to containing and deterring Iran in Syria ... but it requires more than just Israel’s itchy trigger finger and cheerleading from the sidelines by Arab autocracies," wrote Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution, who argued for more robust diplomatic engagement from the Trump administration and cautioned against alienating allies by pulling out of the nuclear deal.

In February, the International Crisis Group issued a report warning that the current atmosphere of tensions made “miscalculation more likely” in Syria. Since then, the risks of an escalation have only intensified.

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