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.
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."
Without Iran, the Assad regime might not have been capable of producing and unleashing chemical weapons, as the U.S. said it did Aug. 21, killing more than 1,400 civilians. Iran has sent to Syria weapons scientists, equipment, precursor chemicals and technical training needed to make the poison gas sarin, the institute said.
The ties go much further, especially in the 2 years since Syria's civil conflict began.
Iran has dispatched its Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds special operations force into Syria. With Hezbollah paramilitary fighters, Quds often leads the fight and advises Syrian officers on how to clear neighborhoods of rebels and their allies.
The Quds Force's top officer, Gen. Qassem Suleimani, has visited Mr. Assad at least twice in Damascus since war broke out.
The institute's report notes that after a January 2012 visit, Mr. Assad's forces cleared the city of Zabadani, a support hub for Hezbollah near Lebanon. His army then moved to retake the strategic city of Homs north of Zabadani and fortify it with enough ground troops to hold the territory.
Both moves are credited with giving the regime momentum against various rebel groups.
In the meantime, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' conventional force has helped organize a pro-Assad militia — Jaysh al-Shabi, or the People's Army — that Iran says numbers 50,000. Tehran also has sent intelligence agents and high-tech electronics into Syria to help the government locate the enemy, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
What all this support means is that Tehran may choose a robust counterattack to try to punish the U.S. for assailing an indispensable ally.
Mr. Harmer said there are a number of possibilities.
Tehran could order Shiite militias in Iraq, which Iran helped train and equip, to attack U.S. assets such as the sprawling embassy complex in Baghdad.
Iran also could organize a blitz of rocket fire from Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria itself against Israel, with the aim of overwhelming the country's Iron Dome missile shield.
Worldwide, Hezbollah, Iran's intelligence service and the Quds Force control agents who can attack U.S. embassies or assassinate personnel.
Matthew Levitt, a former senior Treasury Department official who specialized in counterterrorism, submitted a written statement to a House committee in May on Tehran's lengthening global reach.
Iran "maintains a network of intelligence agents specifically tasked with sponsoring and executing terrorist attacks in the Western Hemisphere," Mr. Levitt wrote.
In 2011, Iran plotted to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the U.S. at a Washington restaurant — a conspiracy that U.S. officials believe will not be the last.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper said Iranian leaders, including the all-powerful mullahs, "have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime."
Asked during a House committee hearing Wednesday about an Iranian counterattack, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: "We're postured for the possibility of retaliation, and I can assure you that our regional partners are, as well."
The Pentagon, for now, is keeping two aircraft carriers instead of one in the Persian Gulf region as a show of force aimed at Iran.
Mr. Harmer does not believe Iran would retaliate in the Gulf, where it maintains a navy of speedboats, destroyers and submarines — all with first-strike capabilities against the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Iran learned during the "tanker war" of the 1980s, when the U.S. reflagged and protected oil tankers, that it is no match for American might.
"They know if they pick a fight with the first shot they aren't going to survive that," Mr. Harmer said. "The retaliation from the U.S. Navy will be overwhelming. And the U.S. Navy will make a very strong case back to D.C. of saying we need to destroy the entire Iranian navy at this point."
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