The military deal signed by Iran and Syria earlier this month has serious security and strategic implications, coinciding as it did with Israeli attacks on Iranian targets. Israel, it is said, is monitoring the situation very closely, not least because the deal will see Iran strengthening Syria’s air defence systems.
The agreement was signed in Damascus by Syrian Defence Minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub and Iran’s chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri. It is the fruit of long-term security and military cooperation, despite the growing security challenges facing each of the allies.
The Israelis view the deal as a means for Iran to challenge the occupation state. For Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, meanwhile, it is another stage in his struggle for survival, linking his future with Iran, which has survival issues of its own under US sanctions.
In strengthening its air defences, Syria hopes to reduce the number of Israeli, Turkish and US fighters in its skies. Russian advisers will help to operate the systems in place, which have been purchased from Moscow and well as Tehran.
I believe that the agreement also aims to strengthen Hezbollah’s ability to transfer advanced weapons systems, including air defence technology, from Iran via Syria to Lebanon. It is also possible that Iran intends to provide itself with the option of attacking Israel from Syria, or through it, in response to Israeli attacks on Iranian military assets. Indeed, boosting Syria’s air defences provides cover for Iran and Lebanon, as Israeli aircraft will be able to be monitored from take-off deep inside the occupation state.
According to Israel, Al-Assad has been keen to manoeuvre himself between Russia and Iran for military assistance and the development of Syria’s armed forces, without granting favoured status and influence to either of them. However, this agreement indicates a preference for a military alliance with Tehran, giving Iran a lead on political influence in Syria.
What’s more, the Israelis believe that the deal suggests that three main issues which currently bother Al-Assad have been taken into account: Moscow’s tendencies to search for an alternative to him as president; Russia’s delay in handing over the S-300 air defence systems to Syrian operators; and his desire for the Russians to stop putting pressure on him to make his future role dependent on getting rid of the Iranian military presence in Syria. However, with Russia refusing to allow the Syrians to operate their own air defence systems, the regime in Damascus has turned to Iran to respond to Israeli strikes.
This agreement sends a strong message to Israel and the US, not least in response to America’s Caesar Act and more sanctions on Tehran, as well as the explosion at the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz. Israel is concerned that the level of strategic relations between Syria and Iran has been raised. Nevertheless, Iran will continue to establish a military base in Syria and intends to have long-term military cooperation, despite the Caesar Act. The agreement also sends a message to Turkey that Iran stands by Syria in the face of increasing Turkish involvement in its southern neighbour.
Having a stronger military presence in Syria means that Iran is giving itself more options to respond to Israeli aggression. That is why the Israelis are monitoring the situation very closely. If the old saying that there is no smoke without fire rings true, then it looks as if Iran and Israel are preparing for a military escalation in the region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.