Tehran further flexed its regional muscle in response to the confrontation with the United States by apparently picking out Israeli targets yesterday, demonstrating the efficacy of relying on proxies to shield Iran from retaliation, as Washington renewed its offer to talk.
Two rockets fired from Syria at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights were met almost immediately by Israeli raids on Syrian territory that is officially under the control of President Bashar Al Assad.
It was the first such development involving Israel since the US strengthened its military presence in the Gulf region last month in response to what Washington regards as Iranian threats to security.
The Golan is a strategic plateau bordering Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. Israel occupied the area in 1967 and Washington this year recognised it as Israeli territory in a move that drew widespread condemnation and was seen as playing into the hands of Mr Al Assad.
A reported deal in July last year between Washington, Moscow and Israel was designed to keep Iran away from Syria’s Quneitra and Daraa governorates, which border the Golan. But the rockets fired on the Golan were a reminder that Iran has been the biggest winner in the Syrian civil war, with the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah its main instrument there.
Although Iranian troops are reported to have been killed in Israeli strikes on Syria, militia proxies or Mr Al Assad’s forces had borne the brunt of Israeli operations. The Syrian regime announced that three of its troops were killed in yesterday’s strikes. Israel had said Mr Al Assad’s military would be held responsible for any attacks coming from Syria, an arrangement that appears to suit Tehran and Israel, because both sides would rather avoid open warfare and Tehran appears not to be too concerned about casualties among Mr Al Assad’s loyalists.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Switzerland on Sunday that Washington was continuing its efforts to “reverse the malign activity” of Iran but was ready to talk with Tehran without conditions.
Iran rebuffed previous US comments about talks after Washington scrapped the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018.
A tightening of US sanctions on Iran last month was followed by sabotage attacks against oil tankers off the UAE coast and drone strikes by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on an oil pipeline and pumping stations in Saudi Arabia.
In Iraq, a rocket fired from a Baghdad district controlled by Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary forces struck close to the US embassy.
In Syria, Tehran has not shied away from using militia proxies, despite regular Israeli raids on Iran-associated forces in Syria and Israeli co-ordination with Russia to try to curb Iran’s reach.
Nizar Abdel Kader, a veteran Lebanese military analyst, said the Iranian militia investment in Syria was paying off, with the Syrian regime having no choice but to take casualties on behalf of Iran.
The attack on the Golan was a reminder of Iran’s position if any dialogue with the US takes place as it showed Tehran’s ability “to play strong cards”.
"After the attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, this is another message the Iranians are sending," Mr Abdel Kader, a retired brigadier general, told The National from Beirut.
"Tehran is saying, ‘We are capable of wreaking havoc with the security and stability of the whole region’.
“It is typical of the anonymous way they operate. Nobody can prove that the official regime of the Islamic republic is behind these attacks.”
Arrangements between Israel, Russia and Washington forced western and Gulf-backed Syrian opposition forces to hand over southern Syria to the regime in July last year. However, Hezbollah soon moved in.
A confidential report seen by The National and on which western and Arab governments were briefed showed that up to mid-April Iran had formed at least 36 local militias in southern Syria with a strength of more than 2,000 fighters.
The recruitment focus has been the so-called “settlement areas”, regions that the regime captured since July last year, with Hezbollah leading the effort in co-operation with Mr Al Assad’s air force intelligence – considered the most effective and the most widely feared Damascus security arm. It has especially focused on areas directly bordering the Golan in Quneitra province. Militia commanders are believed to receive a $1,500 (Dh5,508) salary while regular members receive about $250.
Since last year, Hezbollah sought to mix its outright Syrian recruitment effort with softer tactics, such as charity work, the report said. This came amid low-intensity clashes in southern Syria between pro-Assad forces and elements of the local population.
Many in the area are opposed to the group’s infiltration and proselytisation efforts by Iran, supported by cash, to get new Shiite converts. Dozens of Hezbollah collaborators and former rebel commanders opposed to Hezbollah have been killed.