In Israel’s latest wave of escalating attacks in Syria, the former seems to have targeted a major Iranian-backed ammunition depot on the edge of Damascus on Monday. However, Iran’s response to regional developments and the US maximum pressure campaign has been to bide its time, rather than retaliate or escalate and changing that strategy at this time seems unlikely. Further, there may be an opportunity to push Iran to compromise or pull back some from its regional endeavors before the upcoming elections in the US.
On the most recent attack, Reuters reported: “Syrian military defectors said the strike targeted a major Iranian-run ammunitions depot in Jabal al-Mane near the town of Kiswa, where Iranian Revolutionary Guards have long been entrenched in a rugged area almost 15 km (9.3 miles) south of the center of Damascus.”
Iran has been hit hard as pressure mounts on Iran and its proxies across the region, mainly in Iraq and Lebanon. But the most significant development is inside Iran, with a number of mysterious explosions and fires across the country, including within Iran’s missile production and nuclear facilities. While no one has confirmed that Israel was responsible, it seems likely they were behind the attacks.
The string of recent attacks indicate an escalation in Israel’s “the war between wars” military strategy, which is a series of targeted military strikes on Iran and its proxies that do not resemble the last war of 2006 but come before the next one inevitably breaks out.
Other strikes hit the towns of Muqaylabiya and Zakiya near Kiswa where Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah are deployed, and there were reports of a number of casualties among Iranians and Hezbollah.
So far, Iran has tailored its strategy to the US maximum pressure campaign by ignoring it and has opted to wait out the current US administration until the next US presidential election, whereby it hopes new American leadership will prompt a change of strategy toward the Islamic Republic and bring some relief.
However, there are concerns today that targeting Iranian sites might change this calculation and push Iran to react.
Some believe that in the lead-up to the US November 2020 elections, Washington will amplify pressure on the Iranian regime – economically through sanctions and militarily in Syria and Iran. And such a surge in pressure might push Iran to react without making calculations that would lead to a war. However, it has also been clear that Iran has been very careful not to make such a mistake that would find the regime in a war that would prove more costly than they can afford.
An Iranian retaliation against the Israeli strikes in Syria or the mysterious explosions inside Iran is highly unlikely. Iran has not yet retaliated in the magnitude promised for the loss of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani – a loss beyond any other – and the many Israeli strikes on its facilities inside Syria, and it doesn’t seem that the regime is ready to risk a war anytime soon, knowing that any substantial retaliation could lead to a war.
Like the Islamic Republic, Iran’s proxies are also not prepared for a war. While Hezbollah would be Iran’s best weapon in case of war, the militant group cum political party is far from prepared to engage in a war. In addition to dealing with a collapsing economy on the domestic front and dealing with losses in Syria, Hezbollah is suffering its own financial crisis, which intensified as US sanctions against Iran increased.
Without access to hard currency, Hezbollah cannot fund another war, or guarantee a proliferation of its weapons and can make no promises for funding post-war reconstruction.
In addition, Hezbollah hasn’t been able to rehabilitate its fighting force since it got involved in Syria in 2011.
With the loss of many commanders and elite fighters, and with the recent loss of Soleimani, who was by default Hezbollah’s main military commander, a war with Israel means several outcomes: Hezbollah will lose its weapons, its precision missiles facilities in Lebanon will be destroyed, more of its elite commanders will be lost or injured, its finances will be depleted, and the Shia community – who are already hurting due to the Lebanese economic crisis – will blame Hezbollah for the war and further losses.
On the other hand, by being dragged into a war with Israel via Iran, Hezbollah might be able to more faithfully return to its rhetoric of resistance, which has lost clout as their involvement in the Syrian swamp grew.
However, they have recently learned that this rhetoric cannot put food on the table or help create a solution to the Lebanese crisis. That’s exactly why Hezbollah has boosted talk of war by making strong statements against Israel and disseminating videos of Israeli targets, instead of actually going to war.
However, if Iran were attacked, it would be able to defend itself, just like Hezbollah could launch 150,000 rockets at Israel if needed.
However, Iran would lose more than it could gain, and the probability of being compensated for those losses through oil revenues, international assistance, or other financial means is low.
Therefore, Iran will stick to its strategy of hiding its head in the sand as it tries to survive against escalating pressure – or the so-called war between wars – until there is a change in US strategy or new US administration.
Before the US election, there is still a window in which Iran could be maneuvered into a position where they will have to compromise, rather than wait this campaign out. Signs of this readiness to compromise were apparent when Iran agreed to a new Iraqi prime minister that was not of Tehran’s choosing. Therefore, US endeavors in Iraq – such as commitment to troop presence, diplomatic efforts, and assistance to the Iraqi army and state that succeeded in bringing about this concession in Iraq should also be implemented in other parts of the region. Iran might feel compelled.
Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute's Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant. She tweets @haningdr.