Twice in the past week, members of the Iran-Russia-Syria alliance challenged the U.S. and its allies. On February 7, a formation of pro-Assad units—apparently led by Iranian officers and comprising local Iran-backed militias, Afghan troops imported by Tehran, Syrian government troops, Russian mercenaries, and Russian-backed “Islamic State hunters”—crossed the Euphrates river and opened fire on the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They thereby violated the “deconfliction” agreement prohibiting them from operating east of the Euphrates. Then, Iran sent a drone into Israeli airspace. Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights argue that the Islamic Republic is deliberately probing its adversaries and taking stock of their reactions:
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) appears to have spearheaded both of these recent provocations, in line with its long track record of conducting drone operations inside Syria and its leading role in coordinating the Assad regime’s offensive operations south of Deir Ezzour. The question is how the two tests are related, if at all.
[Furthermore], both incidents occurred against a background of growing Iranian confidence that the Syria intervention has saved the Assad regime, limited the United States to a tenuous foothold in the northeast [of the country], and allowed Tehran to establish a forward base of operations against Israel. The IRGC is now able to collect intelligence on Israel directly, reinforce and resupply Hizballah by land, and potentially transform the Golan Heights into an active military front.
Moreover, while Syrian and Hizballah drones have flown over Israel in the past, this is the first known incursion by an Iranian drone. . . . [T]he incident demonstrates that Iran is now willing and able to use Syria as a base for operations inside Israel, marking a new phase in tensions between the two adversaries. . . .
Given the likelihood that Iran will continue testing American and Israeli redlines in Syria, the Trump administration should pursue a more coherent approach. [One priority is] policing U.S. redlines more consistently. The United States might consider resuming strikes in response to future chemical-weapons incidents; these could justifiably be broadened to include nearby Iranian or proxy elements supporting Assad regime forces. Moreover, strikes on high-value Iranian targets not directly connected to such provocations would further complicate Iran’s calculations and make U.S. strikes less predictable. . . .