Israel’s practice has been to strike targets in Syria that are involved with, among other things, the Iranian transfer of qualitatively new weapons to Hezbollah—but never to acknowledge it. So long as the Israelis said nothing publicly, neither the Iranians nor Hezbollah had to retaliate to avoid losing face. But with the Iranians losing at least seven Qods Force officers in the Israeli attack, and the Russians declaring Israeli responsibility, the Iranians have been exposed. Their media is now giving significant coverage not just to the attack but the declarations of senior officials like Ali Akbar Velayati that Iran will retaliate.
Why would the Russians out the Israelis? Two reasons: First, the Russians are co-located at the base, so even though the Israeli attack was very precise, it was close to Russian forces. Vladimir Putin decided to signal to the Israelis that this was unacceptable. Second, the Israeli attack took place after Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Douma, and Mr. Putin wanted it known this was not an American strike. He is allergic to anything that suggests American power might be shaping events in Syria. Russia is the arbiter.
If anything, the very limited nature of the subsequent American, British and French attacks on three chemical-weapons-related sites in Syria proved Mr. Putin’s point. The strikes did nothing to weaken Mr. Assad’s intelligence or command-control assets, to alter the balance of power in Syria, or to affect the Russian or Iranian positions in the country. And the limited nature of the strikes, carefully avoiding any targets close to the Russian or Iranian forces, came after Russia threatened to counter any such attacks—effectively showing Russian deterrence worked on the Trump administration.
The president’s stated determination to get out of Syria and “let others take care of it” no doubt also emboldens both Russia and Iran—and tells the Israelis they are on their own. Maybe the Iranians will calibrate their response to the Israelis; after all, they are still consolidating their presence in Syria, and they must deal with a continuing insurgency. But that assumes the Iranian response—whether directly against Israel or against a soft Jewish target outside Israel—will be so limited that Israel will also limit its response. That assumes a lot, including that the Iranians and Israelis read each other’s signals well. The potential for miscalculation is high.
Even if the current possible clash can be managed, Iran and Israel are on a collision course. Iran is determined to build an extensive military infrastructure for itself and its proxies in Syria and open a new front against Israel. Israel is just as determined to prevent Iran from creating in Syria the equivalent of the Hezbollah threat from Lebanon.
One other factor adds to the risk of escalation. The Iranian determination to build a Syrian front against Israel reflects the belief that the Islamic Republic will gain an asymmetric advantage over the Jewish state. Through Hezbollah, which today has more than 120,000 rockets, Iran can threaten Israel from Lebanon and Syria, while Israel is limited in its ability to threaten Iran directly in response—or so the Iranians seem to think.
But it is not in the Israeli DNA to accept a situation in which Iran believes it can inflict a war on Israel with impunity. If Israel were absorbing 1,000 to 2,000 rockets a day in a war orchestrated by the Iranians, it would hit targets in Iran chosen to inflict great pain. Iranian oil facilities could well be an Israeli target. How would Iran respond? Hezbollah rockets would already be maximizing Iranian damage to Israel. If Iran’s oil facilities were targeted, would Tehran allow the Saudi facilities to be left intact?
The point is that it is easy to see how an Israeli-Iranian war could begin but not how it would end. The Trump administration may want out of Syria, but when the U.S. is on the sidelines, the danger of a regionwide war intensifies.
American deterrence is needed now. Mr. Putin needs to understand that the U.S. will not sit by and wait for Iran’s expansion in Syria to trigger a wider war with Israel. He can act to contain the expansion of the Iranian and Shiite militia presence, or America, using its air power, will do so.
Mr. Trump clearly sees no interest in Syria. But he also has no interest in a wider regional war that could suck America in and harm the global economy. This is not the time to lead from behind.
This article was originally published by The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Ross has held senior national security positions in several presidential administrations and is counselor at the Washington Institute.