Why Iran's Options In Syria Are Limited

I've talked before about why Iran's conventional military weakness means it lacks escalation dominance. This means Iran cannot escalate a conflict to its advantage, because the situation would spiral out of its control.

Shahid Mahdi Lotfi

Now we are seeing this limitation in action.

On the 9th of April, Israel attacked the T-4 airbase which housed Iranian Shahed-129s. 7 Iranians were martyred and I don't see what Iran can do to retaliate.

Why did Israel attack?

There are a few possible reasons.

Israel has been saying for a while that it will not allow Iran to become "militarily entrenched" in Syria. There are multiple reasons for this. Israel wants to slow Iran's progress in the Syrian war. They also want to prevent us from gaining a foothold in Syria which we could use to protect them after the war (assuming we win) or support Hezbollah more directly.

Israel could have also been using the tension surrounding the US plans to attack as an opportunity to retaliate for Syria's shooting down of the Israeli F-16. Israel's initial attack at Iranian drone control stations and Syrian Air Defences - none of which reported fatalities - may not have satisfied Israel enough.

On the other hand, there could a more short term, dangerous reason. Israel might be trying to make Iran overreact, which Israel has said would prompt a wider and more destructive campaign against Assad.

Why does Iran have few options?

Israel intervening directly against Syria would force Iran even further into the Syria quagmire which has already cost Iran dearly in political and economic capital. Furthermore, it is likely a full Israeli commitment to toppling Assad would succeed, given how weakened the SAA has become due to the civil war. This wider attack isn't so unlikely given the current high tensions around the apparently imminent US attack on Syria.

Retaliating from Iran's own territory with long range ballistic missiles is also an issue. Not only is it a huge escalation, it also may not succeed. Israel's missile defences would probably succeed against a small salvo of missiles like the ones fired at ISIS in Deir ez Zor. Iran needs a mass strike to get through Israeli defences, and that is far too great an escalation for Iran to manage.

Because Israel is effectively holding Syria hostage, Iran can't retaliate and therefore Israel can continue to attack Iranian assets in Syria with relative impunity, harming Iranian prestige and costing Iranian lives and resources.

That's not to say Iran has no options. Iran can try and defend its assets in Syria with SHORADs like the Herz 9, that could intercept Israeli standoff munitions and curb Israeli successes. It could also try and protect an important base like T4 with medium range missiles like the Hawk/Salamcheh to deter Israeli air attacks, although this may only invite a stronger and harder to stop Israeli attack. I say Hawk systems because it is a older generation missile compared to the newer generation Talash 2/3 medium range systems. We don't want to give away the secrets of our radars to Israeli ELINT aircraft. Beefing up Syrian air defences as a whole with mid-range systems could also be a long term goal after the Syrian civil war, to prevent Israel from carrying out attacks in Syria with impunity.

Semi-mobile Ya Zahra SHORAD system. The Herz 9 is a fully mobile version of this.

Another option would be to use Hezbollah to conduct cross-border raids or rocket attacks on Israel, but this is not a great option because:

1. It could provoke a wider Israeli response against Hezbollah

2. It will not be direct retaliation from Iran, and would therefore carry less weight.

Initially I was very angry at this and wanted a direct Iranian response. But we have to look at all the implications and possibilities. Though it may appear passive, Iran should, for the most part, try to keep its head down and win the Syrian war. Iran cannot afford diverting more resources beyond its heavy involvement in Syria and its much lighter support to the Houthis, as well as our supplying of Hezbollah. Ending the Syrian war with victory would take a great deal of pressure off Iran and allow it to focus on the troubled economy for a while.

These men did not die in vain. Rest In Peace, Martyrs.