Iran vs. Israel: Is a Major War Ahead?

The recent escalation of fighting is more likely to result in a stalemate than a cataclysm.

Three soldiers walking in front of a line of tanks
Israeli soldiers and tanks in the Israel-controlled Golan Heights, near the border with Syria, on May 10 (Ariel Schalit / AP)

TEL AVIV—These are uneasy days for citizens of Israel. Almost everywhere, one hears anxious questions: Will there be war? How bad will it be? Should we prepare the bomb shelter at home? And what should we tell the children?

At the same time, though, routine life goes on despite recent tensions on the border with Syria. At most, they have meant inconveniences like canceling a planned family holiday for Shavuot, the Jewish holiday that takes place in about a week, because a top Israeli vacation spot in the Golan Heights recently came under rocket fire from Syria. (All the rockets missed their targets.) The prevalent view of the security establishment and media pundits has trickled down to the public: We are not yet at the cusp of an all-out war, but merely in the midst of a round of hostilities between Iran and Israel. Even the events of the early hours of Thursday—the rocket fire and then the Israeli retaliation—do not herald war so much as they portend exacerbated hostilities.

The situation resembles a match between heavyweight boxers in which neither can land a knockout blow. As the rounds drag on, no one can foresee how the fight will end. The Russian referee might stop the match, or perhaps one of the sides will understand that the damages being incurred are too heavy to bear. For now, at least, the bout goes on. Each of the heavyweights stands its ground: Iran remains determined to incorporate Syria into its sphere of influence, extending from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Israel, meanwhile, makes it abundantly clear that it does not intend to tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria.

Many have described the events of the day before last, when Israel struck some 50 Iranian targets within Syria, as the most extensive Israeli attack on the country since 1974—and the broadest Israeli attack against Iranian targets ever. How are we to interpret this? Shiite forces operating under the auspices of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, commanded by Qassem Suleimani, have for some time been trying to “settle scores” following an attack last month attributed to Israel—on an Iranian base in Syria called T4. During that attack, at least seven members of the Revolutionary Guard were killed.

An Iranian attempt to launch rockets into Israel was apparently thwarted on Tuesday night when Israeli jets struck a launchpad south of Damascus. Just after midnight on Thursday, some 20 rockets were launched from Syria at the Golan Heights: 16 fell short in Syria and four were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, according to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesman.

The Israeli retaliation targeted mostly Iranian assets on Syrian soil, including airfields, weapons depots, intelligence sites, and observation posts. Syrian anti-aircraft batteries that targeted Israeli planes were also destroyed. According to IDF sources, it will take quite a bit of time and money for the Iranians to rebuild this infrastructure. The Syrian army claimed three soldiers were killed in the attacks. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported at least 23 dead, including Iranians. (Israel reported no casualties on its side.)

Yet it is far from certain that any of this will divert Iran from its goal: entrenching its military presence both in Syria and throughout the region. Iran's military influence already pervades Lebanon (through Hezbollah), Iraq (through Shiite militias), and of course Syria (where the IRGC is now well entrenched). The Iranians recognize all too well that post–civil war Syria is in many respects an open and exploitable space. And they are willing to invest significant economic and human resources to achieve their aims there. According to Israeli officials, there are now more than 2,000 IRGC advisers in Syria, some 10,000 members of Shiite militias lured from Pakistan and Afghanistan by promises of citizenship and a plot of land in Iran, and some 8,000 Hezbollah fighters. This entire apparatus is designed to offer Iran wide freedom of movement in Syria.

Tehran has no intention of retreating from Syria with its tail between its legs. Israel, on the other hand, has made it clear that it will oppose Iranian entrenchment in Syria at all costs. This makes further rounds of clashes all but inevitable.

For two reasons, however, such clashes are unlikely to escalate into all-out war. First, since Iran and Israel do not share a border, it is difficult to see how the present hostilities could spiral into a wide-ranging confrontation involving ground operations. On the other hand, if Iran chooses to involve its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, which does share a border with Israel, matters would look quite different, especially given Hezbollah’s exceptional rocket arsenal.

This brings us to a second reason war is unlikely: No party regards a full-scale conflict between Israel and Iran as in its strategic interests—Israel and Iran themselves don’t, nor do the U.S. or Russia, or even Hezbollah and Syria. Hezbollah may be willing to send advisers and soldiers to fight in Syria alongside the Shiite militias and the Revolutionary Guard, but it’s in no hurry to entangle Lebanon in the conflict. In the recent Lebanese parliamentary elections, Hezbollah successfully campaigned on domestic issues. It is doubtful Hezbollah has much interest in reprising its role as an Iranian messenger, which is how it has been perceived by many in Lebanon during the years of the civil war in Syria.

What about Syria? After seven years of civil war, just as President Bashar al-Assad is at last regaining control of large swathes of his country, Syria also has no interest in serving as the battleground between Iran and Israel. Even so, as of now, Assad also needs the Iranian military presence in order to assure its survival.

Iran meanwhile has enough headaches with its economy and with the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal. (There is no connection between the American withdrawal from the nuclear accord and the escalation between Iran and Israel, however. The events of the past few days have been years in the making, with or without the nuclear deal, given Iran and Israel’s mutually incompatible interests in the region.) And Russia does not look favorably on the deterioration of a place like Syria, which is supposed to generate economic profits for Moscow through investments in reconstruction.

So what remains for Iran and the Revolutionary Guards? Iran might adapt its “Yemen model”—support for the Houthi rebels who launch missiles every few days at Iran’s other regional archenemy, Saudi Arabia—to the Syrian theater. Iran might seek to challenge Israel from Syria by helping Shiite militias and Hezbollah advisers establish cells that could launch rockets at Israel without leaving Iranian fingerprints. In this way Tehran could avoid a full-fledged war, while exhausting Israel with short but painful jabs that would harm the country’s economy. Yet there are obstacles to this approach—Israel’s exceptional intelligence capabilities in Syria have more than once frustrated Iranian attempts to land such blows.

So the Yemen model may soon be replaced by another, one the Israelis first encountered in 1992, when Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah operatives carried out a devastating terrorist attack against the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. In other words, instead of launching rockets, the Iranians and Hezbollah may try to use their old techniques: international terrorist operations.

Neither the Yemen nor the Argentina model conforms to definitions of classical warfare. But either way, we’re likely only in the early rounds of a long and drawn-out bout.

This article was translated from Hebrew by Benjamin Balint.