Analysis

Seven Comments on the Escalating Israeli-Iranian Game of Chicken in Syria

Israel may be decimating Syrian air defenses, but the searing image of a downed F-16I fighter gives Damascus a clear propaganda victory

Israeli security forces examine the remains of an F-16 Israeli war plane near the village of Harduf, Israel February 10, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

1. Israel and Iran are playing a game of “chicken” in Syria and Lebanon. Each is testing the limits of the other’s restraint. The infiltration of what Israel says is an Iranian drone was deemed to be a sufficient casus for a forceful response, if not all-out belli. The downing of an Israeli F-16I in what remain unclear circumstances upped the ante further, driving Israel to retaliate with even greater force. Both sides are seemingly uninterested in an all-out clash, but, as in the original “chicken,” in which two cars speed towards each other, it takes only one wrong swerve to spark a deadly crash.

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2. No matter how severe the damage that the Israel Air Force is inflicting on Iranian installation and Syrian air defenses, the searing image of the day is that of the remains of the F-16I fighter, which crashed near Kibbutz Harduf in the Lower Galilee. If initial reports that the $50 million jet was brought down by an anti-aircraft missile are borne out, it would mark the first successful Syrian interception of an Israeli fighter since the 1982 Lebanon War. Given the near-invincibility of Israeli jet fighters in scores of sorties carried out in Syria and Lebanon in recent years, the images of the downed Israeli aircraft are bound to be portrayed as a historic Syrian victory over Zionist forces. It goes without saying that the situation would have been a hundred times worse had the pilots ejected over Syrian territory and taken prisoner by local forces.

3. The gap between a propaganda victory on the airwaves and a military defeat on the ground is a function, of course, of the accessibility of media and modern technology in Israel and the lack thereof among its rivals. The decisive power of the television lens in the battle over hearts and minds, which has plagued Israel in its confrontations with Palestinians, is borne out once again.

>> Everything we know about the latest Israel-Syria-Iran escalation

4. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has played up the unprecedented intimacy of his close ties and frequent meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin, creating a false impression that Moscow might lean in Israel’s favor in its efforts to arrest Iranian entrenchment in Syria and Lebanon. Russia, however, is an unsentimental actor on the world stage, and its only interest is in furthering Russian interests. It strives to become the indispensable player in the Middle East, often at the expense of the United States, and its policies are geared to advance its agenda. Logic dictates, therefore, that Moscow is not seeking an all out conflagration, which could have detrimental unintended circumstances, but has no interest in resolving the Israeli-Iranian standoff either. A state of constant tension with periodic flare-ups that demand its intervention is the best of all worlds as far as Moscow is concerned.

5. Donald Trump’s United States, on the other hand, has seemingly been relegated to the sidelines of the current clash. Nonetheless, Iranian spokesmen have linked Saturday’s flare-up clashes with Israel to this week’s clashes between U.S. coalition forces and pro-Assad militias in Syria’s northeast. The array of forces with conflicting agendas that are currently involved in the Syrian arena could link the seemingly unconnected theaters. Iranian spokesmen explicitly tried to create such a connection on Saturday, portraying Israel as an instrument of a wider American offensive against Iran in particular and Shiites in general.

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6. The player being watched most closely by Israel is Hezbollah. It is the only force in the area that holds an effective deterrent against Israel. The Shi'ite militia’s 130,000+ missiles could not only wreak havoc on Israeli cities and infrastructure but also compel Israel to launch an all-out and ultimately costly war to eliminate the threat. Such developments could not only ignite the Middle East, traumatize Israel and inflict heavy casualties on its civilian population but could also destabilize Netanyahu’s own rule. His predecessor Ehud Olmert lost the public’s support not because of the myriad charges of corruption against him but because of what the public perceived, rightly or wrongly, as his inept management of the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

7. Netanyahu, who is facing a police report this week that may recommend his indictment for bribery and breach of trust, is now in a similar predicament. Although he has proven himself to be a cautious prime minister who shies away from dangerous military adventurism, the Syria flare-up will inevitably been seen by some of his critics as a sort of “wag the dog” effort to deflect attention away from his legal problems. In yet another example of a politician’s words coming back to haunt him and of the famous adage adopted by Ariel Sharon – “things you see from here you don’t see from there” – Netanyahu may now regret some of his statements as head of the opposition during Olmert’s tenure.

“This is a prime minister who is up to his neck in investigations,” Netanyahu said in December 2008, in the days before Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. “He has no public or moral mandate to make such fateful decisions because of a true and not unfounded concern that he will decide on the basis of his personal and political survival and not the national interest.”