Over the past few days, Syria reported that Iraqi Shiite militia were attacked by air in eastern Syria. There were major losses with media stories claiming that at least 22 were killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the death toll at 52.
A new SOHR report raises the death toll and changes the nationalities of many of the victims (italics added):
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights documented more casualties against the backdrop of the airstrikes that targeted joint sites of the Iranians, the regime, and their loyal militia in the al-Heri area near al-Bokamal area in the far east of Deir Ezzor at the Syrian-Iraqi border shortly before midnight on Sunday, the 17th of June 2018, where it rose to 55 including 16 members of the regime forces (including 4 officers) and 30 Iranians, while the nationalities of the other 9 are not known until now…The warplanes that target[ed] the above-mentioned sites…used the same airspace used by the International Coalition warplanes, and the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation.
And in a subsequent Facebook post, SOHR corrects this report by noting that 30 of the dead were Iraqis (not Iranians) and that the nine who were formerly of unknown nationality, were Iranian.
Syria originally blamed the U.S. for the assault. That’s because the only enemy air power patrolling that area till now has been American. But in an unprecedented announcement, the U.S. revealed that Israel had launched the attack.
While Israel has launched hundreds of air sorties against Hezbollah and Iranian forces in western Syria (the Golan) including Damascus, this is a major escalation in the fighting. It’s the first time Israel has attacked eastern Syria (aside from the 2007 attack on Syria’s purported nuclear reactor site). Even more shocking, this is the first time since the 1973 War that Israel has attacked Iraqi forces. Iraq also sent expeditionary forces to fight against Israel in the 1948 and 1967 conflicts.
The Iraqi militia are fighting on behalf of Iran and the IRG, and is part of the Shiite forces bolstering the Assad regime. Though estimates vary widely (from 10,000-80,000), analysts have estimated Iran has recruited tens of thousands of such militia forces from countries with Shiite majorities.
The Israeli air assault is a reckless move since it could draw other players into the Syria conflict who haven’t even played a major role till now. The Iraqi governments has denounced the attack. Given that recent Iraqi elections saw the pro-Iranian Shiite political parties win massive gains, this could draw Iraqi regular forces into the conflict in defense of the militias attacked by Israel.
Clearly, Syria has become a proxy battleground between Israel and Iran and this doesn’t bode well for the future. Bibi Netanyahu has determined that Israel must act forcefully to prevent Iran from establishing a major ongoing military presence in Syria. He believes that Iran will seek to destabilize Israel’s northern border and become a force in undermining the current balance of power there. In Israel’s long-term geo-strategic policy, military superiority over its frontline neighbors is paramount. Being challenged by a major power like Iran on its own border is a new and impermissible development as far as it is concerned.
As Iranian-American Prof. Muhammad Sahimi reminded me: of all the foreign powers meddling in the Syrian conflict, only three parties were invited by the Assad regime: Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. Neither Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the U.S., nor Israel have received such an invitation. Hence, they are violating Syria’s sovereignty. That has never stood in Israel’s way when it comes to exercising its military-strategic prerogatives. But for those of us who believe in international law, such “niceties” are important.
Also worth mentioning: the reason Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have their forces inside Syria is that outside powers (including Israel) sought to destabilize and even overthrow the Assad regime. Once the threat to his regime passes, there will be no further reason for outsiders to remain. Iran’s leaders have pledged to withdraw their forces once this happens. If Israel and the Trump administration truly wished to compel Iran to restrain its alleged expansionist impulses in the region, the best way to do it would be to stop intervening militarily. At that point, if Iran refused to withdraw, the world would be far more receptive to denunciations of Iran. However, it becomes impossible to persuade the world that Iran is the villain in this set-piece when there are so many other parties stirring the pot in Syria with their own intrigues.
I do not support the Assad regime. He is as much a butcher as the al Nusra and ISIS forces which once took control of large swaths of the country. But confronting the current bloody stalemate, the best option seems the withdrawal of all outside forces and leaving Syrians alone to determine their destiny.
Given the overall equilibrium, in which the U.S. has rejected the sole major international agreement which served as a restraint on Iran’s regional ambitions, it seems unlikely Iran will be receptive to the message Netanyahu is sending. This means that there is no telling where this face-off could lead. There are already 500,000 Syrian dead from the nearly decade-long conflict. The Iran-Israel struggle could drag on for years more in Syria. It is a cold, hard brutal reality that while regional powers jockey for dominance, it is the Syrians who die as a result. It reminds me of the African saying: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” The only difference is that grass can recover and human beings can’t.
There are regular reports by pro-Israel journalists of an imminent agreement among Israel, Russia, and the U.S. that would either eject Iran from Syria altogether (Israel’s goal), or restrict its presence to within miles of the western frontier with Israel. Some reports have heralded these developments as a means of blocking Iran’s supposed expansionist plans in the region. The problem is that neither Assad nor Iran have been party to any talks on the subject. So there is no way of knowing whether such talk is the product of Israeli spin or whether there is substance to them. My rule of thumb is that until both parties to a conflict announce an agreement, there isn’t one–no matter what one of the parties may claim.