Iran's Growing Strategic Foothold in the Golan Heights

Number: 36

Tehran’s rekindled, yet dangerously more assertive role in Syria is testament to its efforts to expand strategic depth, ranging from Iraq, over the Shia-offshoot Alawite-dominated heartland in Syria, to the Mediterranean shores in both Syria and Lebanon. In that context, asserting leverage in the Golan Heights represents a vital element in the larger struggle to connect the dots of an Iranian-controlled arc of influence across the Levant.

In doing so, Iran will likely draw from lessons learned in its substantial, for the most part successful, and well-documented tool of statecraft, namely, the support of proxy forces. Propping up its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and pitching it against Israel serves as a prime example, as a result of which Hezbollah has become, from Tehran’s perspective, an indispensable, well-entrenched, and to some degree independent player in both Lebanon and Syria. With a heightened engagement in southwestern Syria, including in the Golan Heights, Tehran is simultaneously vying for its own, more autonomous role as viable and potent actor on Syrian turf in the not-too-distant future.

As a countermeasure, Israel attempts to navigate through an increasingly worrisome threat landscape along its northern borders with Syria and Lebanon. For now, it seems determined to adhere to what it considers the rules of the game: carrying out a proactive containment policy against Iranian and Iranian-linked proxy elements by resorting to retaliatory pinpoint strikes to maintain the credibility of its deterrence posture.

There is also a larger element to this interaction. The modus operandi of the Israeli-Iranian rivalry in Syria has tangible repercussions for their respective protégés and allies, too. With the latest American- British-French strikes in retaliation for the chemical weapons use in Douma allegedly perpetrated by the Assad regime, thus acknowledging the role of Russia—for some a tacit culprit by overlooking Iranian overtures in Syria while for others a force able to rein in Tehran and a vital channel that heeds Israeli security concerns—will be key in preventing any escalatory pattern in Syria.