Reva Bhalla: Hello, my name is Reva Bhalla, and today I’m joined by Stratfor’s lead military analyst, Paul Floyd, to discuss some recent military activity in the Middle East. Paul, we had some very interesting activity on Sunday with Israeli airstrikes in Syria. Do we have a better sense of what was targeted in that attack?
Paul Floyd: We’ve had multiple reports, and they’ve ranged from everything from various types of missiles such as ballistic missiles, cruise missiles. We’ve even had our own sources talk about Iranian aircraft being damaged in the transfer to some reports claiming it was Syrian air defense units that were attacked. What seems clear though, is that Israel is following the pattern it has established over the past several years of the Syrian Civil War, which is striking in Syria when it wants to make sure weapons don’t get into hands of actors such as Hezbollah or the rebels that could affect its own territory. It’s still following this clear pattern of this security doctrine. What we don’t see is Israel attacking regime targets to allow rebels to take territory from the regime because, to a point, Israel has an interest in maintaining that balance of power because the rebels would maintain as much of a threat to Israel proper if they had control of the entire area as the regime itself.
Reva: Right. Although the regime itself loves to claim that Israel is backing the rebels, and that’s a way to sort of undermine the creditability of rebel factions, but yes, I think this is very focused on actual weapons systems that Israel simply doesn’t want to have in the hands of Hezbollah. And geography matters here because this isn’t just a doctrine we’ve seen play out in Syria, but as we saw two years ago with an Israeli airstrike in Sudan on a weapons shipment headed toward Hamas. This is something where we see Israel paying close attention to where it can strike, and preferably in locations where their threat of retaliation would be lower.
Paul: They’re very much proactive and offensive in a defensive mindset just because, in their minds, they have such a small territory and they cant afford to have anything on their soil, so they very much are willing to reach out when they have the proper intelligence and strike at things that could be potential threats.
Reva: So better to strike at Syria against a distracted regime versus in Lebanon with Hezbollah right on your northern border and in Sudan versus in Egypt where things get politically complicated.
Reva: Back to the target set though. We had alerted our readers of the revelation that Iran had transported missile systems, the Fateh-110 missiles in particular, to Hezbollah, something that both Hezbollah and Iran openly claimed, that that would likely result in a preemptive Israeli strike. Low and behold, we saw strikes this past weekend. So what exactly is so concerning about these missiles in particular?
Paul: Specifically, it’s their range combined with their accuracy. The idea that Hezbollah specifically, or any actor that is waging war against Israel, could have the ability to, within 300 kilometers of range and reach basically any strategic target within Israel and hit it with a certain amount of accuracy is, to a point, intolerable. Again, Israel, if it has the intelligence and the ability to preempt that and stop that, especially in Syria which is that logistical trail from Iran, it makes perfect sense.
Reva: The timing of this shipment was very interesting, with Iran and Hezbollah openly acknowledging that these missiles have been transferred and coming right after we saw the nuclear negotiations extension between Iran and the P5+1. You would think this would put the United States in a difficult position. At the same time it’s negotiating with Iran, Iran is engaging in a very provocative move, but there does seem to be something below the surface there. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Paul: Remember that Iran, in all of its interests in this larger Shia arc, is under a lot of stress. Its proxy regime in Syria, or its supported regime in Syria, has lost a ton of territory and is now a shell of its former self. That directly threatens supply lines to Hezbollah, its most important military proxy. Hezbollah itself is very much engaged in the Syrian Civil War because of this existential threat to itself and its supply lines. In many ways, this could be posturing for Iran and Hezbollah to provide deterrence to Israel to a certain degree to say, “Hey, they do have these weapons and these capabilities and are openly admitting it.” You understand that, and you understand the pain of attacking them. In many schools of thought, this might be the appropriate time for Israel to be very proactive against Hezbollah because it’s so committed in different regions, and they could destroy portions of any detail. So this, in many ways, could be deterrence.
Reva: It reminds me of a situation back in Operation Cast Lead when we saw those longer range missiles being employed by Hamas. Something that we heard from one of our sources within Hamas was that there was a lack of control within Hamas over the decision to actually deploy those missiles. That was something that escalated the conflict very rapidly. And so I would think that as Iran is broadcasting that it is transferring these missiles, it would also be quietly telegraphing to the United States and Israel that it is the one to still hold control over these arsenals when they’re in country, in possession of its allies. That’s a form of leverage that could come in handy.
Paul: Absolutely, it’s just a very dangerous form of leverage. Weapons, while they can be very symbolic, still very much have capability, and that can’t be ignored. So it’s a very fine line between deterring or being so threatening that it forces action from Israel in this case. Iran is playing a very delicate game.
Reva: Iran is also walking a very delicate line in Iraq as well. We see this offensive by the Islamic State, and of course, there’s common interest with the United States in intelligence coordination for example, even if both sides go to extremes to deny it. So as we look out in the months ahead at big milestones like an operation to retake Mosul, which is in the cards but will take time to build up, what does that US-Iranian coordination look like when it comes to a military offensive like that?
Paul: There absolutely is cooperation, but it’s such a broad term that we have to actually define what it is in this case. We’ve seen very much that Iran and the United States have denied this cooperation at any level, but the fact is that we know Iran is taking military action in Iraq, and so is the United States. If you have two military units working in close proximity, there has to be cooperation, otherwise they would be shooting each other, basically. It’s simple, but it’s true. Past that, what you’re really seeing then is the way they cooperate. In this case, it seems to be geographical. The United States has agreed to cooperate quietly in certain parts of Iraq, while Iran is operating in its own place. Iran has been using both the Iraqi Shiite brigades and its own Quds Force and its commanders that are advising, and in some cases, airstrikes. In a lot of places that are close to the border, so the southern part of the KRG, the Diyala province, everything along that eastern side of Iraq where they have proximity and they have interest for the Islamic State to kind of push down and wedge between Baghdad and the KRG. The United States, on the other hand, has been much more active in the Sunni areas, both in Anbar and the northern portions of the KRG. That seems to be where that agreed upon cooperation split is taking place. Past that, when you talk about a place like Mosul, that level of cooperation gets really sticky if you start bringing in Shiite forces to cooperate with both peshmerga and Iraqi security forces in the Sunni bastion, you could be exacerbating the problem versus fixing it and basically having the broader Sunni community throw in its lot.
Reva: That’s not in the interest of either Washington nor Tehran, so again another point of cooperation potentially. So we’ll see as both sides respect that geographic line in Iraq. This is certainly a geographic trend that we’ll be watching in 2015. Thank you Paul, and thank you all for joining us.
“Conversation: Explaining Iran’s Moves Against Israel and the Islamic State” is republished with permission of Stratfor.