Israel and Iran are now, for the first time, engaged in a full-frontal confrontation on Syrian territory. That’s the main significance of Saturday’s day of fighting in the north.
Even if the current round ends quickly, in the longer term the strategic situation has changed. Israel will be forced to address a nettling combination of circumstances: Iran’s willingness to act against it, the Assad regime’s growing self-confidence and, most worrying of all, partial Russian backing for the aggressive policy adopted by the other two members of the axis.
Seven years of civil war in Syria gave Israel’s broad freedom of action in Syrian skies. When it identified a threat to its security interests, its air force acted almost without hindrance. Benjamin Netanyahu’s successive governments maintained the red lines they drew (first and foremost preventing sophisticated arms from being smuggled to Hezbollah) and generally conducted a sensible and responsible Syria policy that prevented Israel from getting dragged too far into the war.
But last year, circumstances changed. Once the Assad regime was clearly winning the civil war, Syria resumed trying to shoot down Israeli planes that attacked it. At the same time, Iran began promoting its own interests, deploying Shi’ite militias in southern Syria and pressuring Damascus to allow it to establish naval and air bases. Nevertheless, Israel’s modus operandi in the north did not change until it fell Saturday into a strategic trap that which might have been a deliberate ambush.
A brief recap: Iran sent a drone into Israel and an Israel Air Force helicopter downed it. Israel then destroyed the control vehicle for the drone, located on a Syrian base near Palmyra, in southern Syria. It’s likely that this strike, for the first time, killed Iranian soldiers or “advisors.”
The Syrian army responded by firing more than 20 anti-aircraft missiles, one of which apparently hit an Israeli F-16I and forced its crew to eject over the Galilee. Israel responded by attacking 12 Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria, an attack described as the largest since 1982 (which was also the last time an Israeli fighter jet was downed by anti-aircraft fire).
Israel had several operational successes Saturday. It downed the Iranian drone despite the unmanned aircraft’s very low radar signature, and did so in a convenient location that allowed Israel to recover the parts; this will presumably provide proof of Iranian responsibility. Israel also destroyed the control vehicle in a complex, long-distance attack and hit several other targets.
But in the current era of image wars, all this will be overshadowed by the downing of the Israeli plane and injuring of its crew. The Arabs marketed this as a great victory, and it embarrassed Israelis.
The IAF will need to investigate how a relatively antiquated missile penetrated Israel’s air defenses. It will also probe the crew’s behavior: Was the plane too high and exposed, trying to determine whether a missile hit its Syrian target, while other planes in the formation took evasive action?
Iran has already leveraged the incident to obtain a pronouncement that Israel can no longer operate in Syria. This worrying pronouncement was issued by Russia, which hosted Netanyahu just last month: Moscow urged Israel to respect Syrian sovereignty while completely ignoring the Iranian drone’s infiltration into Israel.
The parties may continue trading blows for some time, due in part to considerations of national pride and public embarrassment.
In January 2015, facing similar circumstances, Netanyahu was wise enough to end the matter. Then, Israel was accused of assassinating an Iranian general and a Hezbollah activist (Jihad Mughniyeh) in the Syrian Golan Heights. About 10 days later, two Israeli soldiers died in a Hezbollah ambush on Har Dov. But Israel refrained from retaliating and the danger of war passed. Today, like then, there are diplomatic steps that can be taken, such as transmitting threats through Washington and Moscow, before continuing the dangerous slide into war.
Within Israel, as usual, questions arose about the connection between the security escalation and the police investigations of Netanyahu. Next week, police are expected to issue recommendations on whether to indict him, and on Saturday, social media were abuzz with journalists, political activists and others charging that the escalation was all a plot by the prime minister to divert public attention from truly important things. Anyone who didn’t buy this explanation was immediately branded a Netanyahu collaborator, though these learned analysts never quite explained whether the Iranians, who launched the drone, were also part of the plot.
Personal and political considerations have played roles in many prime ministers’ diplomatic and security decisions. But to accuse Netanyahu, who usually avoids war like the plague, of deliberating heating up the northern border requires better proof than baseless conjecture. Moreover, the idea that Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, one of Israel’s straightest and most cautious public servants, would cooperate with such a dirty trick is ridiculous. In fact, the army took a hawkish line during Saturday’s deliberations, recommending a harsh blow against the Iranians.
The army hasn’t yet divulged what the Iranian drone was supposed to do in Israel. It was apparently supposed to complete some task and leave without being detected. But regardless of its purpose, the incident proved that Tehran isn’t satisfied with helping the Assad regime or securing a Mediterranean seaport; it sees the regime’s victory as an opportunity for friction with Israel along the border.
Though the army didn’t display even a fraction of its intelligence and operational capabilities Saturday, it would be better if it never had to do so. But what’s particularly worrying is that so far, there’s no sign of any “responsible adult” in the international community who will intervene to restrain the parties.
Russia, which courteously hosts Netanyahu every few months, appears to be coordinated with Iran and Syria, even in their moves against Israel. And the Trump administration may see the escalation in the north as an opportunity to exact a price from Iran, and consequently even encourage Israel to continue its assault. Thus we may be on the verge of a serious crisis, even if it doesn’t become an actual war in the near future.
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