Over the weekend, Israel used the long-standing adversarial threat of Iran as a pretext to launch a barrage of attacks against targets in Syrian territory. According to the Israeli side, an Iranian drone launched from Syria flew deep into Israeli airspace, which prompted Israel to not only down the drone, but to also target the base the drone was allegedly launched from in Syria.
In turn, Syria activated its air defenses, which saw Israel lose one of its fighter jets soon after. Unhappy with this result, Israel launched a number of retaliatory strikes against Syria’s air defenses, including bases allegedly staffed with Iranian personnel as opposed to Iran’s mere proxy forces. Israel claimed it successfully destroyed half of Syria’s air defenses, and because this is allegedly the first time Israel has actually struck Iranian targets as opposed to Iranian proxies, the weekend’s developments undoubtedly represent an escalation.
“We are seeing a renegotiation of the rules of the game with regard to the kind of military activity that each side tolerates in the other,” said Ofer Zalzberg, the senior analyst for Israel/Palestine at the International Crisis Group. “We will see more and more friction between the parties, given that we are seeing more and more this sense that Assad has the upper hand [against Syrian rebels]”, he added.
It’s worth noting that Tehran denied it launched the drone in the first place, stating its forces are in Syria in an advise-and-assist capacity only, yet western media has taken Israel’s claim at face value. Perhaps a drone did violate Israeli territory, but the implication that Iran launched it still requires further proof given the drone almost certainly came from Syria, which has a government and military of its own. Further, a pertinent question worth examining is why Iran would launch a drone into Israeli territory in the first place. As the Atlantic observed:
“The story may well be true. But in the absence of further information, including forensic evidence from the wreckage, one must wonder what would compel Iran to make such an incursion at a time when some in the country are trying to persuade the European signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal to stand by its side and not cave to the Trump administration’s attempt to torpedo it. This would seem an inopportune moment for provocation.”
Israel has already admitted to bombing Syria well over 100 times since the conflict in Syria began in 2011, and that point alone is enough to turn this debate on its head: Why is it okay for Israel to violate Syria (and Lebanon’s) airspace over 100 times over the course of half a decade while it remains largely unacceptable for Syria to do the same a single time? Surely this double standard cannot sustain a workable and civil international community.
Further, the drone itself was reportedly a surveillance drone. It posed no immediate threat to Israeli life compared to, say, Israel’s sophisticated bombers, which routinely violate Lebanon’s (and now Jordan’s) airspace to take out targets in Syria.
“Winter is coming from the north where we have a concrete threat,” Orit Perlov, a social media analyst for the Institute for National Security Studies, told the Jerusalem Post in an interview just days before the Israeli jet was downed in Syria.
VICE believes the situation did not escalate even further following the weekend’s activities primarily because of Russia’s diplomatic intervention, which was aimed at de-escalating tensions between the two rival nations. Haaretz observed that the effect of Russia’s intervention showed “once again who’s the real boss in the Middle East.” Even the Atlantic is calling on Russia to broker the peace between the two countries, stating:
“Moscow may be reluctant to assume a political role it has shown little capacity for playing. But as the dominant power in Syria that controls the skies, it has no choice. Unlike any other actor, moreover, it enjoys good relations with all the main actors: Israel, Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime. There is no reasonable alternative to Russia as balancing power and mediator.”
However, the New York Times noted that even though Russia controls Syrian airspace, Israel received no warning regarding the alleged drone activity.
Despite Trump’s diehard pro-Israeli rhetoric, the U.S. is nowhere to be seen at a time when Israelis would probably value its American counterpart the most. In an op-ed published on Sunday in Haaretz, Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Israel Daniel B. Shapiro noted that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was taking a trip through Jordan, Turkey (which is also currently violating Syrian territory), Egypt, Kuwait and even Lebanon — but not Israel.
This reality alone should give some of us hope that at the end of the day, an outright conflict cannot erupt between Iran and Israel without reckoning first with Russia on some level. According to Haaretz, Vladimir Putin intervened during the recent spat and, in a phone call, asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid moves that could lead to “a new round of dangerous consequences for the region.”
Haaretz also believes Russia is concerned about the proximity of the Israeli bombings on sites where Russian soldiers are currently stationed. Given reports are emerging that U.S. airstrikes may have killed a significant number of Russian operatives on the ground in Syria, Russia may be much more irked by the recent developments than first imagined.
Right now, Israel sees the conflict differently. Haaretz stated that Israeli airstrikes were part of what the IDF referred to as the “war between the wars,” designed to undermine Hezbollah’s attempts to empower itself. But the added risk now is the fact that Syria and/or Iran believe they can challenge Israeli airstrikes in the future, meaning one wrong move could catapult the tit-for-tat attacks into something far more extensive.
“We need to prepare ourselves operationally and intelligence-wise for the mounting threat,” Brig Gen Amit Fisher, the Israel Defense Forces chief responsible for the Syrian frontier, told troops on Sunday, according to the Guardian. “The big test will be the test of war.”
The Guardian also noted that the IDF has enhanced its defenses in northern Israel, close to the Syrian border, while the Jerusalem Post cited witnesses who claimed a convoy of missile-defense batteries had moved north.
“That’s the price of war. My assessment is that the incident isn’t over and that we’re now only in a timeout,”Maj. Gen Amiram Levin also told a local radio station, according to the Guardian.
Iran, for its part, has issued equally stern threats.
“The Syrian nation proved this time that it will respond to any act of aggression, as the era of hit and run is over,” Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s supreme national security council said.
“Iran can create a hell for the Zionists,” Hossein Salami, the deputy head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), also allegedly said.
Right now, the concern for Israel is that the Syrian government might try to reclaim the Syrian side of the disputed Golan Heights region, a former part of Syria that was seized and then occupied by Israel. After the conflict erupted in 2011, Syria lost its side of the Golan Heights to armed rebel groups, which have effectively operated under free air support from Israel – but this might change in the not-too-distant future. However, this would put Israel in a worse off position than it was in prior to the conflict, as the over-extension of Assad’s forces means he may have to rely on Iranian proxies like Hezbollah to retake the area for him. If that happens, it is almost certain that we will see Israel further widen its involvement in Syria to combat this alleged threat.
Whether or not this will eventually lead to an all-out war with Iran is still unclear. Last year, a top Israeli general tasked with writing his country’s defense policy admitted that Israel could not take on Iran’s military alone and would have to rely on assistance from the U.S.
According to Ofer Zalsberg, the risk of “full-fledged war, conventional war, between Israel and Iran, is still very low.” Instead, the real risk is that a war between Israel and Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy on the ground, is “increasing by the day,” according to Zalsberg.
The recent spats came at a time immediately after U.S. troops had arrived in Israel for joint military exercises aimed at preparing to defend Israel from a Hezbollah rocket attack.
In September of last year, Israel held its largest military drill in 20 years. It was specifically designed to simulate an invasion of Lebanon to combat Hezbollah.