Of all the news items to come out of the Middle East in recent weeks, this one has the potential to be the most serious by far:
The Israel Resource News Agency (IRNS) in Jerusalem has reported that Iran has deployed 50,000 troops to Syria in support of the embattled dictator, President Bashar Assad.
IRNS — an arm of the Center for Near East Policy — reports on Israel’s affairs to the international media.
Intelligence reports can be wrong (50,000 does sound like a high number), but if the report is correct, Iran’s presence in Syria shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“The damages of the imminent fall of Syria are very high for both Iran and Hezbollah,” said Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, commander of Israeli military intelligence. “Iran is losing a sole ally in the region surrounding Israel. It will lose the ability to transfer weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah. Iran and Hezbollah are both doing all in their power to assist Assad’s regime.”
But while the anticipated collapse of the Assad regime is worrisome to Iran, news of this deployment should be equally distressing to Israel. The Iranian presence could escalate the war and bring the two countries into contact far sooner than the nuclear threat.
To be clear, these troops are “an Iranian sponsored force,” according to Kochavi, probably not Iranian regulars. But he also says the force was “trained by Hezbollah and financed by Iran,” it operates as a unit apart from, but allied with, the Syrian army, and it could grow to a force of 100,000 men before long.
Additionally, there have been past reports of Iranian troops entering Syria. The Wall Street Journal reported last August that elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard and hundreds of foot soldiers were sent to Syria — a report later confirmed by the Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, General Mohammad Ali Jafari. Iran also is trying to ship sophisticated weaponry to Syria. In January, Yemen intercepted an Iranian vessel trying to smuggle explosives and surface-to-air missiles to the country.
But this latest development represents a far larger and more ominous escalation.
So the distinction between Iranian-sponsored and Iranian regular troops may not be so significant. They’re there. They’re protecting Iran’s interests and they’re not so far from Israel.
Couple this development with news that the United Nations observer force on the Golan Heights has “reduced” its operations due to fighting there. Canada, Croatia and Japan have withdrawn their troops from the region while Austria has reduced its presence.
That means the buffer force between Israel and Syria, which has existed there since 1974 — however strong or weak — is eroding. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a scenario in which Iranian-sponsored troops — they call themselves “The People’s Army” — turn their attention to Israel. Even a rogue element of that force could spark an incident that may be impossible to quall.
We’re not trying to be alarmists, but this is a new and real threat to Israel’s security that must be taken seriously, both by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama. Iranian forces are no longer hundreds of miles away; they could be within range of the Jewish state depending on where they deploy.
We hope the two world leaders, whose chilly relationship up until the president’s recent trip to Israel was well known, have managed to mend their fences. They will need to work together, closely and effectively, in the weeks and months to come.