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10 May 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:38am

Military action between Israel and Iran is a significant new frontier

Israeli ministers say they have no desire for an escalation of hostilities, but their actions – and those of Iran – show the conflict can only move in that direction.

By Patrick Maguire

The impact of Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal continues to be felt in the Middle East. After days of airstrikes, Israel claims to have destroyed most of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria. Meanwhile, in a historic first, Tehran has launched missile strikes on Israeli military bases in the Golan Heights.


Israel’s military response to the decision marks its biggest incursion into Syrian territory since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. That statistic alone underlines the profound shift in regional politics caused by Trump’s decision. The current episode is far more significant than the spasms of violence the west has come to expect of politics in the region.


Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, struck a defiant note this morning. “We hit nearly all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria,” he said. “They need to remember the saying that if it rains on us, it’ll storm on them. I hope we’ve finished this episode and everyone understood. We don’t want an escalation, but won’t let anyone attack us or build an infrastructure to attack us in the future.”

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His stated desire for no further escalation of hostilities is wishful thinking. Trump’s decision to pull out was as much his as Benjamin Netanyahu’s and has been taken as licence to escalate hostilities with Iran, whose operations in Syria the US sees as an attempt to establish a new client state (and a mark of the failure of the nuclear deal).


In this respect, Israel’s public admission of strikes is highly significant. In the aftermath of strikes on Syrian targets in recent weeks, its officials refused to confirm or deny that they had been responsible. For an Israeli minister to be so candid is a mark of the step change in regional power politics.


An immediate escalation of the shadow conflict between Iran and Israel was always the likeliest consequence of Trump’s decision, and it is unlikely to end with the destruction of Iranian installations in Syria.

Tehran’s decision to launch missile strikes on the Golan Heights is equally notable. Its backing for Hezbollah and other proxies in Syria means it is no stranger to attacking or pressuring Israel. Direct military engagement, however, is a Rubicon it has never crossed before. It is the clearest mark of the escalation – a historic one at that – that the Israelis said they did not want.

There are plenty of incentives for Iran continue pursuing its hostile stance, such as the parliamentary majority won by Hezbollah in Lebanon earlier this week.

Having opened new fronts in the shadow war with Iran, Israel might now find an intensified challenge on more familiar ones – especially given its efforts to wipe out the Iranian presence in Syria. This episode of the conflict, as they hope, might well be over. But their actions, and the Iranaian reaction, have begun a markedly more serious one.

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