Attacks Reframe the Syrian Crisis

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Israel's latest air strike against a Syrian military facility, explicitly condoned by US President Barack Obama, has been called an "act of war" by Syrian officials and, as expected, drawn strong verbal condemnation by Iran, compared to the silent response of much of the Arab world.

The strike, together with four rocket attacks on Damascus also blamed on Israel by the Syrian government, reflects a major escalation of the two-year old conflict that may result in direct Iranian military intervention in the near future.

A clue to the latter, both Ahmad Vahidi, the Iranian defense minister, and Ahmadreza Poordastan, who heads the Iranian army, have denounced Israel's air strike, the third since January, in the strongest terms and suggested that Iran can provide "support" for the Syrian army. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Israel has hit several Fateh 110 missiles bound for Lebanon, which has complained to the United Nations over Israel's repeated violation of its air space.

Pushing the throttle on Syria is a risky proposition for Tel Aviv and has the potential to backfire in light of Iran's call on the Arab world to "take a united stand" against Israeli aggression. There are a good deal of questions about Israel's motives that are complex and rather murky, but such attacks shift the focus from the "civil war" in Syria to an inter-state conflict, thus re-mapping the entire trajectory of the conflict.

"Israel is deliberately escalating the conflict with 'green lights' from Washington in order to tip the balance in favor of Syrian rebels, who are increasingly pushed to a corner in recent weeks,'' said a Tehran University political science professor who spoke to the author on the condition of anonymity. "The Syrian army is now confronted at two fronts, stretching its resources. At the same time, by attacking Syria through Lebanon's air space, Israel is fanning the flames of sectarian tension there and hopes to undermine Hezbollah's position."

In fact, as far as Tehran is concerned, there is a triple threat stemming from the Syrian conflict. It threatens not only Syrian and Hezbollah, Iran's two traditional strategic regional allies, but also Iraq, which is increasingly rattled by internal instability and fears of a spillover from the conflict partly, due to the recent alliance of Syrian jihadists and al-Qaeda in Iraq. In turn, this has triggered serious national security conversations in Iran regarding the dangers lurking on the horizon and the nature of proper responses.

With the presidential elections in Iran only a month away, and a bulk of candidates pushing for a more moderate image of Iran abroad, it is uncomfortable to say the least for Iran to be forced in the direction of (in) direct military intervention in Syria, which could easily become Iran's "quagmire".

Tehran's preference is for a political solution to the conflict in Syria, which is why it has backed the hitherto hopeless mission of UN's special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, whose call for a halt to arms to both sides in the conflict has fallen on deaf ears. Some Tehran analysts contend in fact that Brahimi's call was gaining some traction and Israel's attack was meant to derail it, since it is in Israel' s interest to "maintain chaos" in Syria.

There is an inherent danger in such a strategy however, given the likely benefit to the radical jihadists in Syria, who are Israel's sworn enemies (see Iran softens tune on Israel, Asia Times Online, April 30, 2013). What Israel may gain tactically in the short run, it may lose strategically in the long run. Even the slightest hint of the Syrian conflict's "re-direction" toward an inter-state conflict is a plus for Damascus, which can put the Arab League on notice that they are skirting their historic responsibility toward a fellow Arab state that is put under siege by the Zionist state. At a minimum, this can drive a wedge in Arab public opinion and even influence some Syrian rebels, who consider themselves, first and foremost, nationalists.

What then lies ahead? The most likely prospect is the greater and greater "internationalization" of the theater of conflict in Syria, with Russia and Iran acting in concert to prevent Damascus's fall, while US and Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab states continuing with their (non) lethal aid and Turkey caught in the machinations of other powers, instead of charting an independent map of action.

With tens of thousands killed, several millions turned into internal and external refugees, and the Syrian economy taking a huge hit, the bleak picture in Syria is likely to turn even bleaker in the coming months, perhaps as a result of a more frequent and sustained Israeli military intervention, tantamount to a not-so discrete "Israelization" of the conflict with the multiple side effects mentioned above .

There is a touch of irony in all of this. Israel by attacking Syria "can actually help Bashar al-Assad survive", says the Tehran professor, adding ominously that Iran is "keen on limiting its role in Syria but might soon conclude there is no alternative but to do the exact opposite." Bottom line, this is a policy dilemma for Iran that will surely beset the next administration.

*Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University and former adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiation team (2004 to 2006). He is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

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Source: Asia Times Online

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*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.