The incident Saturday on the Israeli-Syrian border signifies a grave escalation in the ongoing conflict between Israel on one hand and Iran and the Assad regime on the other. The threats have been replaced by actions – the exchange of fire on the border and deep within Syrian territory – and these tensions have no end in sight.
According to the Israeli army, this is what transpired: In the early morning, an unmanned Iranian aerial vehicle launched from the T-4 Syrian airbase near Palmyra in the south of Syria. The drone entered Israeli territory through the northern Beit She'an Valley and was shot down by an Israeli helicopter. In response, Israeli air force fighter jets attacked and destroyed the Iranian trailer in Syria from which the drone was launched.
During the strike, Syrian aerial defense systems opened heavy fire at the Israeli jets. One of them, possibly hit by Syrian fire, was abandoned over Israeli territory. The pilots were taken to hospital, where one is in serious condition. This is the first such incident in the last 30 years.
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In a second response, Israel bombed 12 targets in Syria, four of which were Iranian sites, as well as Syria air-defense batteries. It remains to be seen whether this will end the exchanges.
The dramatic and unusual fact that the pilots ejected from the F-16 will probably be talked about extensively in the media in the coming hours, but one must not ignore the bigger implications of the events.
Israel has, according to reports, already attacked a joint Syrian-Iranian weapons factory last September, followed by an attack on an Iranian militia base near Damascus in December. This morning, however, is the first time a manned Iranian target has been bombed. So far reports from Syria are few, but if soldiers or "advisers" were killed in the Israeli strike, it's a different story altogether.
What does Iran want with the Israeli border? Since last summer, Israeli leadership has been warning of an Iranian attempt to gain a foothold in Syria, riding on the Assad regime's success in the civil war. This attempt includes deployments in southern Syria of some 10,000 Shiite militia fighters from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, under the auspices of Iran; erection of weapons factory in Syria; and Iranian talks with the Assad regime to establish an aerial and maritime base in Syria.
The incursion into Israeli territory, which seems planned, is both a violation of sovereignty and a severe provocation. IDF spokesman Brigadier General Ronen Manelis used harsh words this morning, saying Iran is dragging the region into jeopardy and will pay the price. It seems, from his rhetoric, that this exchange is far from over.
The Assad regime has long warned Israel that it would respond to Israeli strikes against convoys and weapons depots tied to Hezbollah in Syrian territory. A severe warning of this sort was sounded last week, after a bombing – attributed to Israel – of a weapons development facility near Damascus.
The launch of anti-aircraft missiles on Israeli jets came as a response to Israeli incursion into Syria, but it is also an expression of the regime's newfound sense of power. Last March, in the same area of Palmyra, anti-aircraft missiles were fired at Israeli jets. One of the missiles, which entered Israeli territory, was intercepted by the Arrow defense system. That incident took place shortly after the regime took control of Aleppo. Since then, Assad has retaken practical control of over 80 percent of Syrian territory. In recent weeks, the regime has been carrying out a brutal campaign against rebel strongholds, including in an enclave near Damascus. Syrian self-confidence is also manifested in its willingness to exchange blows with Israel.
The bombing of the Iranian trailer from which the drone was launched comes days after a publicized visit to the Golan Heights by Israeli cabinet ministers, armed with their uniform Uniqlo coats. But the signs of conflict have been felt in the air for months. The prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief have relayed warnings to Syria, Iran and Lebanon. A senior Israeli official estimated back in December that the advent of Shiite militias in southern Syria places Iran and Israel on a collision course.
This tension, more than ever, is pulling in the big powers. For Russia, which still has fighter squadrons and sophisticated anti-aircraft batteries in northern Syria, the Assad regime – and even the Iranians, to some extent – are part of Moscow's camp, which has the upper hand in the Syrian civil war. The Trump administration has been signaling a more resolute stance towards the Iranians as compared with the Obama administration, which feared intervention in the country and was worried about thwarting what it perceived as its greatest achievement: The Iranian nuclear deal signed in Vienna in the summer of 2015. Did President Trump give Netanyahu a green light to engage Iran in the north?
We are in the midst of a day of fighting on the Golan Heights, but the sides are on a very slippery slope.