Could Iran sustain a war against Israel in Syria?

Could Iran sustain a war against Israel in Syria?
5 min read
17 May, 2018
Analysis: Any full-scale Israel-Iran war that begins in Syria will not end there, writes Paul Iddon.
The flames of an Israel-Iran war would quickly spread throughout the region [AFP]
The latest, and most serious to date, flare-up in the Iran-Israel conflict in Syria raises questions about Tehran's ability to militarily challenge the Jewish state from Syrian soil.

On May 10, Israel launched "Operation House of Cards" in response to a rocket attack believed to have been carried out by Iran, or its proxies, on the Golan Heights. At least 20 rockets, reportedly including Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets, were fired at Israeli-held positions - but failed to cause any real damage.

Israel responded by launching airstrikes against as many as 60 targets believed to have connections with Iranian forces in Syria, killing "at least six Syrian soldiers and 21 foreign fighters, including 11 Iranians" according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Israelis says the attack targeted all of Iran's military infrastructure in Syria. The Russian military says that Israel fired 60 air-to-surface missiles, accompanied by 10 surface-to-surface missiles - a strike package just more than half the size of the 110 cruise missiles the United States, Great Britain and France launched at a mere three Syrian targets believed to be tied to Damascus's chemical weapons programme on April 14.
Iran is good at waging low-level asymmetrical wars against its opponents using proxy forces

This is the third significant attack Israel has carried out against Iranian targets in Syria to date and, by some accounts, constitutes the largest single Israeli attack inside Syria since the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The first transpired on February 7 and was prompted by an Iranian drone, launched from Syria's T-4 airbase, violating Israeli airspace. That drone was promptly shot down and the Israelis targeted several sites across Syria in retaliation, losing an F-16 on its way home to anti-aircraft fire.

In late April the Israelis launched a more serious follow-up attack, which notably struck the T-4 facility in Syria's Homs province and killed at least seven Iranian personnel. Tehran vowed to retaliate for that attack and it looks like that's what it tried to do this month in the Golan Heights.

These Israeli strikes, which have gotten bigger and more serious each time, raise the question of Iran's capability to mount and sustain a conflict with Israel from Syrian soil. Israel has shown no qualms about launching disproprotionately huge retalitory attacks over any provocation. As its Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman put it after this latest attack: "If we get rain, they'll get a flood."


Tehran's increasingly overt presence in Syria, especially in recent months, and the military infrastructure it has steadily built up indicates that it was preparing for what was, perhaps, an inevitable confrontation with its arch-enemy.

Can Iran wage war against Israel from Syrian soil? It depends "on the scale of the conflict", said Nicholas Blanford, author of the 2011 book Warriors of God: Inside Hezbollah's Thirty-Year Struggle Against Israel.

"Iran is good at waging low-level asymmetrical wars against its opponents using proxy forces," he told The New Arab. "It has not engaged in a conventional war against a nation state since the 1980-88 conflict with Iraq."

Blanford went onto predict that in any direct fight "limited to Syria and involving only Iranian forces and Israel then presumably Israel would triumph in short order". 

"But any conflict that breaks out between the two - if a full-on war - will not be limited to just those two actors and not just that sole battle-space," he added. "I would expect it to spread to Lebanon very quickly, with Hizballah joining the fight and possibly other Iran-backed militias assisting from Syrian soil."

If the war spread from a standoff in Syria, where Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitary forces are spread out across the country, to a confrontation with Hizballah forces in Lebanon, this could prove much more serious and spark another widely devastating Israel-Hizballah war.

"The great restraining factor that has so far helped ensure that Iran/Hizballah-Israel confrontations have stayed limited to skirmishes rather than full war is because all parties know the level of destruction is going to be massive next time around," Blanford noted. "Israel's domestic front will experience its greatest destruction and loss of life since the 1948 war. Lebanon will be turned in to a car park."


The last time Israel and Hizballah fought a war was in the summer of 2006, destroying huge parts of Lebanon's infrastructure. Since then, Lebanon has amassed an enormous surface-to-surface missile arsenal which includes missiles that can reach any part of Israel. The sheer number of projectiles may well prove capable of overwhelming Israel's sophisticated missile defence systems, such as the Iron Dome and Arrow systems.

Iranian IRGC forces in Syria attempted to deter Israeli air attacks on Syria when they deployed Tor missiles to T-4 last month, which Israel promptly destroyed before they were even set up. Furthermore, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu apparently convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin against supplying Damascus with S-300 air defence missiles in a recent visit to Moscow, essentially meaning that Israel retains its freedom to target Iranian forces and equipment across Syria from the air.

Except for ballistic missiles, the IRGC has no serious technological means to challenge Israel. Neither in Syria, nor anywhere else

With the exception of its loss of a single F-16 last February (without any pilot fatalities), Israel has had success targeting largely antiquated Syrian air defence missiles without losing any of its aircraft. Even a Russian-made Pantsir-S1 missile system was videoed taking a direct hit in Israel's latest round of airstrikes.

This essentially means that Iran will have difficulty establishing any sizeable surface-to-surface missile force in Syria when they have no means to prevent Israel from swiftly launching preemptive airstrikes to destroy them.

As Tom Cooper, an author and military aviation analyst and historian, told The New Arab: "Except for ballistic missiles, the IRGC has no serious technological means to challenge Israel. Neither in Syria, nor anywhere else."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon