Earlier this month, when Israeli missiles struck a military site near Damascus that reportedly housed Iranian forces, the intended message was clear: Israel will not tolerate the permanent presence of Iranian militias and military infrastructure in Syria. This represents a clear redline for Iran’s leadership, one that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made explicit in a video message released a few hours later: “We will not allow [Iran] to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.”
Israel’s reasons for sending a message to Iran are straightforward: it does not want Syria to become another base for the Iranian regime and its allies. Pro-Iranian forces already threaten Israel from Lebanon, where Israeli officials believe that Hezbollah has more than 100,000 missiles. Tehran also has established close relations with the militant Palestinian movement Islamic Jihad and Hamas’ military wing. And in 2015, after Iran signed a nuclear deal with the United States, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated that Israel “will not see [the end] of these 25 years” and that “Iran will support anyone who strikes at Israel.”
But Tehran was not the only audience for this message. Since Russia entered the Syrian civil war in the fall of 2015, an important shift has taken place: Iran is no longer the strongest foreign power in Syria; Russia is. So far, Russian and Iranian goals in Syria have been aligned, but that is changing as the war enters a new phase. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin would not hesitate to act against Israel if necessary, the two countries have common interests in Syria—and those common interests may help Israel enforce its redline against Iran.
Since May 2011, Iran has been one of the principal international supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tehran considers Assad a key part of the so-called axis of resistance against Israeli and U.S. influence in the region. The two countries also share a history of cooperation: Syria was one
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