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What could war between Israel and Hamas mean for Syria?

Amid fears of war between Israel and Hamas spiraling into a regional conflagration, analysts weigh the impact of regional players and assess the likelihood of another front in Syria.

13 October 2023

MARSEILLE — With Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel on October 7—unprecedented in scale since the Yom Kippur War that started 50 years prior—speculation immediately began surrounding to what extent Iran, which backs the armed Palestinian group, was involved. 

Tehran has repeatedly denied having a direct hand in the attack, while some media reports have pointed to close Iranian involvement. The ensuing war has claimed the lives of nearly 1,300 Israelis and more than 1,530 Palestinians, a toll rapidly growing with a  “complete siege” imposed on the Gaza Strip and an impending Israeli ground assault.

Moves towards Iranian-Saudi and Israeli-Saudi normalization in the past year had led some experts to expect a new period of de-escalation. Instead, the region now stands at a dangerous precipice, as a range of actors shape their response to rapidly evolving events in Israel and Palestine. 

Amid fears of a regional conflagration, what could the fallout of the Hamas-Israel war—and Iranian involvement in the attack that sparked it—mean for Syria?

“The technical know-how of how to use, to make those rockets that were used in Gaza came from Iran,” Joe Macaron, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, said. Iran provided “at least some sort of advice, support, guidance. Now to what level it was involved, nobody can give a real answer.” 

Whether Iranian involvement in Hamas’ October 7 attack was direct or indirect, it “de facto benefits Hezbollah and Iran,” Joseph Daher, professor at the European University Institute, told Syria Direct. “Regional countries will see this as an increasing role of Iran in Palestine and more broadly.” 

In Syria, where Tehran and affiliated militias—including Lebanese Hezbollah—are deeply involved as backers of the Assad regime, “Iran could gain more influence, but the influence is already here,” Daher says. 

Iranian influence in Syria has only grown over the past two years as Russia, Assad’s other main ally, “is busy with the Ukrainian conflict,” Macaron says, “so we see Iran filling a lot of the vacuum.”

Omar Abu al-Layla, the head of DeirEzzor24—a media and research organization focused on his home province of Deir e-Zor—knows firsthand how pervasive Iranian influence is in Syria. Multiple  Iranian-backed militias are active in regime-controlled areas of the eastern Syrian province, where they have been repeatedly targeted by Israeli airstrikes. 

Abu al-Layla drew parallels between Gaza and his province, where he said civilians end up “paying the price” for the armed groups operating where they live.

Another front?

Daher, Macaron, and Abu al-Layla all believe the Syrian regime is highly unlikely to get involved in Hamas’ ongoing operation against Israel. Daher describes Damascus as a “passive actor” and “very weak,” saying “they know they lack military strength.” 

Moreover, the relationship between Hamas and the Syrian regime is lukewarm. Damascus only re-established diplomatic relations with the group last year, after Hamas’ political leadership left Syria over its initial support for the Syrian revolution in 2012.

But Iranian-backed militias operate largely autonomously from the regime. “Bashar al-Assad sold the country to the Iranian militias and to the Russians,” Abu al-Layla said. “He cannot decide to stop them or to tell them anything.” 

On October 10, as Israel bombed Gaza three days after Hamas’ attack, rockets were fired from Syria’s southwestern Quneitra province towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, reportedly by Hezbollah-linked Palestinian factions. Israel retaliated with artillery and mortar fire on the same day. 

Two days later, amid periodic shelling by Hezbollah across Lebanon’s southern border, Israel targeted the Aleppo and Damascus airports with simultaneous airstrikes. The attack came one day before Iran’s foreign minister was scheduled to visit Syria—and could be viewed as a warning to Iran and its proxies against increased involvement.

Daher describes the rockets fired from southern Syria as “symbolic,” saying “the Syrian front is calm.” While it marked the first exchange of shelling since the Gaza war began, rockets are periodically fired from Syria at the Golan Heights, including during the 2014 Gaza war.

Macaron says Iranian-backed groups in Syria ultimately lack the capabilities and coordination to mount a threat to Israel, as they are “not disciplined” and have “no clear command and control”. 

Abu al-Layla says internal dynamics among Iranian-backed militias in Syria could also complicate effective action against Israel. Syrian and foreign members of Iran-backed militias, such as Hezbollah, “don’t trust each other,” he says, and “some local fighters refuse to join these fighters to be deployed to other fronts” outside their home regions, let alone against Israel.

But Daher believes if Hezbollah were to open a second front from Lebanon—something he says there is little popular appetite for—Iranian-backed groups in Syria would mobilize. 

“If the Lebanese front opens, what we could see is a strengthening of Iranian Hezbollah, even more influence in border areas of the south [of Syria], even more than going to the front, possibly launching rockets from there as an additional tool of pressure against Israel,” he says.

If there is a second front, Macaron says “Lebanese Hezbollah will be enough—there will be no need for a Syrian front.”

However, Hanin Ghaddar—a Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute specializing in  Shia politics—says “the Golan front might actually be a better front for Iran than the Lebanese one…where most of its assets are.” 

Using Syria as a base for attacks would allow Iran to “use Hezbollah with plausible deniability,” she adds. “The repercussions of that might be big, because Israel has already threatened bombing Assad and Damascus.”

If Syria—or major groups operating in there—were to enter into direct conflict with Israel, “Deir ez-Zor will be target number one,” Abu al-Layla says. Tel Aviv would likely target Iranian positions west of the Euphrates River. Iranian-backed militias roam freely in eastern Syria and across to the porous border to Iraq. 

Since the October 7 attack, Israel has already resumed attacks in Deir ez-Zor, including Al-Bukamal, Al-Bulil, and Deir e-Zor city. River crossings between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the eastern bank of the Euphrates and regime and Iran-backed forces on the western bank were reportedly closed this week. 

Abu al-Layla points to a series of Israeli airstrikes that killed dozens of Iranian-backed and regime forces in January 2021 following the assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and ensuing retaliation by proxy forces. Israel targeted Deir e-Zor’s three largest cities, al-Bukamal, Mayadeen and Deir e-Zor city, among other locations.

“It would be a very horrible, horrible situation for the civilians and the north of Syria…if the war moved to northeast Syria,” he says, citing fears of civilian displacement. He fears a major “escalation.” Deir e-Zor is already facing internal volatility, in the wake of recent clashes between the SDF and local Arab tribes and militias. 

But even without the opening of a Syrian front, Abu al-Layla thinks it likely that Israel will step up attacks against Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups in the country during and in the aftermath of the Hamas-Israeli war. 

Turkey’s role

With the world’s eyes on Israel and Gaza amid the ongoing war, Ankara and Damascus have pressed ahead in campaigns of airstrikes in northeastern and northwestern Syria that they launched a few days prior to the October 7 attack.

Turkey initially positioned itself as a neutral player and mediator in the Israeli-Hamas conflict, urging restraint from both sides. “Turkey is always ready to provide any help if it can to ensure that the developments in question do not escalate further,” Turkey’s foreign minister Hakan Fidan said on October 7, adding “we continue our intensive contacts with the relevant parties.” 

Turkey’s commentary on the war has since escalated, with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan condemning the bombing and siege of Gaza as “not a war, but a massacre” on October 11. 

Nonetheless, Turkey continues to play a role in negotiations to secure the release of “civilian prisoners held by Hamas,” according to a senior Turkish official. Israel has denied involvement in negotiations with Qatar, although not with Turkey. Ankara historically has close relations with Hamas, as well as official relations with Israel.

If Turkey plays an effective role in Israel’s current war, it could make US criticism of Turkey “more complicated,” Daher said. This in turn could provide further leverage for Ankara vis-a-vis the US, the primary backer of the SDF, to continue its current campaign against the group in northeast Syria, launched in response to a suicide bombing by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) at the General Directorate of Security in Ankara on October 1. Turkey views Kurdish forces that make up the bulk of the SDF as an extension of the PKK. 

During Turkey’s latest aerial campaign against SDF targets in northeast Syria, the United States—which backs the SDF in Syria—shot down a Turkish drone that came close to a US base. But it did not take further action to halt the airstrikes against its ally, leaving the door open for further escalation and instability in northeastern Syria. 

Recent US involvement in Syria is largely centered in the country’s northeast, with a focus on fighting the Islamic State (IS) and containing Iranian influence. This posture is not likely to change. 

“The main problem is the lack of any kind of US strategy when it comes to Syria,” Daher said. “I don’t see how the latest events would increase the possibility of the US elaborating [such] a strategy,” he adds. 

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