Has open war finally broken out between Iran and Israel, after so many years of shadow boxing?
The Shia crescent, Tehran's long-term strategic objective, is finally in place, linking Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon and the forces of Hezbollah. Now, in quick succession, an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace, an Israeli fighter jet was shot down over Syria, and Israel launched a series of air strikes inside Syria. Netanyahu today was defiant - “Yesterday we landed hard blows on the forces of Iran and Syria. We made unequivocally clear to everyone that our modus operandi has not changed one bit".
From the Jerusalem Post:
This was long in the making. Years ago, the Iranians came to the rescue of Bashar Assad in Syria and, together with Russia, ensured his survival. The problem is that they haven’t left. On the contrary – even though Assad is today in control of the majority of Syria, Iran is staying put and trying to establish an even greater presence within the country. On Saturday, we saw how determined it is to do just that.
It is too early to tell what lesson Iran has learned from the clash on Saturday. On the one hand, it succeeded in infiltrating a drone into Israel, even though it was ultimately intercepted. Its ally Syria succeeded in shooting down an Israeli fighter jet. On the other hand, Israel carried out its most widespread bombings in Syria since it destroyed almost all of Syria’s air defenses in 1982.
Israel’s retaliation was important for two reasons – it needed to neutralize the Syrian batteries that were used to down the F-16, but also to exact a price from Iran by bombing the control center used to operate the drone as well as other Iranian targets in Syria – the nature of which we will likely learn over the coming days.
The question will be whether Israel succeeded in boosting its deterrence. That depends on what Iran decides to do next. Will it keep on building its presence in Syria? Will it attempt another violation of Israel’s sovereignty down the road?
While the downing of a fighter jet is a heavy blow to Israeli morale, it was not totally unexpected and needs to be viewed through the wider context of what has been going on for the last five years. Israel has carried out more than 100 strikes in Syria, and in war there are always wins and losses. The fact that a plane hasn’t been shot down until now is the real story and speaks volumes of the IAF’s superior capabilities.
Finally, Israel needs to be concerned by Russia’s response to the events on Saturday. In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling for restraint and for all sides to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”
On the surface, it seems like Russia is taking Iran and Syria’s side and not Israel’s, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s best efforts to win over Vladimir Putin and his countless meetings with the Russian president. Beyond the ministry statement’s rhetorical significance, it could have practical consequences if Russia decides to deny Israel operational freedom over Syria in the future.
Israel will have to tread carefully and will not have a lot of choice but to accept Moscow’s directives. While Russia has allowed Iran to establish a presence in Syria it has – until now – prevented it from setting up large bases or a presence right along the border with Israel on the Golan Heights.
That could all still happen – and will depend on what Russia’s interests will be when it comes to the future of Syria and the wider Middle East.
The US, meanwhile, is reduced to muttering on the sidelines about Israel's "right to defend itself". It is, effectively, out of the picture. Russia calls the shots.