- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 5, 2013

In the 22-year history of the U.S. launching precision airstrikes against a list of foes, its anticipated attack on Syria would be its first against a staunch ally of Iran.

This uncharted territory has the Pentagon — and Israel — war-gaming how the bellicose and hard-line regime in Tehran will counterattack once it sees its strategic link to Russia, Hezbollah and Hamas in jeopardy.

“The most likely scenario is [Iranian leaders] using one of their numerous proxies around the world to strike back at U.S. interests,” said Christopher Harmer, a former Navy strategic planner and now an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

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Tehran, dominated by Shiite Muslims, has declared that it will retaliate as if its soil is attacked.

“I take them at their word because they have used their proxies in the past,” said Mr. Harmer, who was stationed in the Persian Gulf with the Navy’s 5th Fleet. “Iran hasn’t changed its strategic priorities at all, and Iran has not stopped seeing the West in general and the U.S. in particular as the enemy.

“But they have changed their tactics on how they will go about attacking us. And it is overwhelmingly through proxy services — Hezbollah, Shia militias in Iraq.”

The age of precision-guided bombs and U.S. intervention has ushered in at least eight campaigns, starting with the 1991 Operation Desert Storm strikes.

The list has grown to include: Operation Desert Fox to destroy Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (1998); strikes on the al Shifa drug plant in the Sudan and al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan (1998); the U.S.-led bombing of Belgrade, Yugoslavia (1999); the invasion of Afghanistan (2001); the Iraq War (2003); and NATO strikes on Libya (2011).

Syria, the next target on the list, promises to spark a broader retaliation, given the Assad regime’s entanglements with terrorism, especially Iran.

The Iranian connection

Iran has no more important regional ally than Syria.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a national security adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted by the Mehr semi-official news agency as saying: “Syria plays a very key role in supporting or, God forbid, destabilizing the resistance front. For this same reason, attack on Syria is considered attack on Iran and Iran’s allies.”

Syria is Iran’s channel to the Hezbollah militant organization in Lebanon and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip, thus giving it a north-south front against archenemy Israel. Iran sends weapons through Syria to both terrorist groups and attempts to control events in Lebanon.

Syria is vital to Iran’s strategic interests in the Middle East and has long been Iran’s closest state ally,” the Institute for the Study of War says in a May report that extensively examined the ties between Damascus and Tehran.

Iran’s strategy in Syria aims to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power as long as possible while setting conditions to ensure Tehran’s ability to use Syrian territory and assets to pursue its regional interests should Assad fall,” the report says. “Iran has conducted an extensive, expensive, and integrated effort to achieve these objectives.”

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