Tehran has threatened the US in Syria, and its drone raid is a sign to Damascus and Russia that Iran is increasingly running Syrian policy.
The Iranian regime was heavily involved in two symbolic attacks in the first two weeks of February. First, pro-regime forces attacked US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) near Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria on February 7. Just over two days later, Iranian forces in Syria launched a drone at Israel, carefully threading its way over the border with Jordan before entering Israel. These two actions reveal how Iran is controlling the escalating tempo in Syria. It wants to test US and Israel responses. It also wants to control the playing field. Although Israel and the US responded to the threats with massive force, it’s unclear if Tehran got the message.
“Either the US will leave the eastern Euphrates in Syria or we will force them to leave,” Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said on January 31 in Mashhad, Iran. The full details of Iran’s involvement in the February 7 attack on the SDF near the village of Khusham in the Euphrates valley is unclear. However, given Velayati’s boasts, it appears to have been planned in coordination with pro-Iranian militias, with a nod from Tehran.
The US coalition says its SDF partners were attacked by artillery and T-55 and T-72 tanks, with supporting mortar fire. This occurred near the Conoco/Al-Tabiyeh gas field, eight kilometers from the Euphrates River. The river is supposed to be the dividing line between the US-backed SDF and the Syrian regime. Coalition officials were “in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted attack,” their statement said. The coalition’s response was to destroy the attacking forces and kill at least 100 of them. This was clearly designed to send a message that this kind of provocation is unacceptable.
As pro-regime and Iranian-backed forces suffered a setback along the Euphrates, another team of Iranians 270 kilometers to the west was preparing their drone to fly over Israel. Located at the Tiyas Air Base on the road from Homs to Palmyra, the Iranian presence included the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Syrian regime forces nearby, according to a statement by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. The Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace sometime around 4:25 a.m. and was shot down a minute-and-a-half later.
So what is Iran’s overall game in Syria in light of these two provocative and unprecedented acts? The decision to attack US forces and send a drone into Israel marks a major escalation. Iran is attempting to test its enemies on both sides of Syria. In both cases it knows that US and Israeli retaliation will likely strike Syrian targets. For Iran then, the Syrian regime pays the price for its behavior.
Both Israel and the US-led coalition were in touch with Russia about the incidents, which presents Russia as the responsible broker standing between Iran, the Syrian regime and a larger conflict. By using Syrian territory and setting down roots, Iran’s actions could threaten the Assad regime. In this game, Iran is the winner, even if it loses some soldiers or militia members. It gets to engage its enemies from abroad, while at home it boasts of being the most powerful country in the region.
It can also boast now of having struck at the all-powerful Americans and causing an Israeli F-16 to be downed for the first time since 1982. In the Iranian revolutionary context, that is poking at the “big and little Satan.” And it is using Syrian territory to do so, and to some extent, using the cover of Russian support of the regime to continue its destabilizing policies. Iran’s regime often points out that it was “invited” to Syria to support the regime, unlike the US or Israel, which it portrays as invading sovereign territory. The question that leaves is: to what degree is the Syrian regime happy with Iran’s actions that cost it soldiers and pose a risk? For decades, the Assad regime kept a cold peace with Israel on the Golan. Now, Iran’s tentacles may risk all that.