On 10 February, the first direct Iranian-Israeli battle took place in Syrian skies after Israel bombed military targets belonging to the Syrian regime and Iranian-backed militias. This was the first time the targets had responded, although it is unclear if it was Syria or Iran that shot down an Israeli jet in northern Palestine using anti-aircraft missiles launched from Syria.
Israel did not accuse Syria of the attack, however. “We view the incident as an Iranian attack on Israeli sovereignty,” said a spokesman for the Israeli army. “Iran is dragging the region into an adventure it has no idea how it will end.”
Israel stopped attacking Syrian military targets after bombing more than 12 in 24 hours, including air-defence and radar installations and threatening more yet to come.
The regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad halted flights from the T4 Airport near Palmyra in central Syria after Israeli bombing had destroyed part of it. This was where an Iranian drone took off and violated Israeli air space. Regime forces and Iranian-backed Hizbullah militias evacuated air-defence and artillery locations in southern Syria in anticipation of Israeli strikes.
The regime’s media outlets proclaimed “an historic victory,” saying that Syria had “entrapped Israel and ended claims of Israeli superiority.” They added that Syria had “foiled the plot on the ground and foiled it in the air,” that “unprecedented fear has struck Israel,” that the Israelis “will flee from Palestine soon,” and that “the US is in a dilemma and a trap.”
Media affiliated with Hizbullah reported that “Iran set a trap for Israel” and the latter “fell into it.”
The Syrian opposition mocked these claims and blamed Iran for unnecessarily subjecting Syria and its people to Israeli strikes. They added that the opposition was not happy at this Iranian scheme using Syrian territory, which was an Iranian-Israeli dispute on Syrian land.
The Syrian regime has not shot down an Israeli jet or even a bullet in Israel’s direction in 40 years, despite dozens of Israeli air strikes. Instead, the regime has protected the Israeli border to prevent any attacks from the Syrian Golan Heights against Israel.
Shooting down an Israeli fighter jet is no small feat, and it could be viewed as a message from Iran to the US without heading into direct confrontation or open war.
It is a message about Iran’s role in Syria that reminds Washington that Tehran can cause instability and even war if its interests are not considered. It is designed to head off any attempt to ignore Iran, especially in the light of reports that Russian-Israeli and Russian-US deals are in the works to curb Iranian influence in Syria.
Israel does not want to escalate the conflict at this time in order to avoid opening up another front in the Golan Heights, especially since Hizbullah militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRG) are in control of large swathes of Syria in Al-Qonaytara, a stone throw’s away from the Israeli forces.
International clamour has helped to rein in any fallout, especially when Moscow and Washington stepped in to defuse the situation and avoid confrontation.
However, there is another analysis of what happened. Some Syrians believe the incident reveals the serious conflict between the Russia-Iran camp and the US-Israel camp, namely that Iran’s provocation of Israel is designed to prove its power in Syria while the US attempts to curb the rival camp there and the regime.
It is also seen as an attempt by Russia, acting through Iran and the Syrian regime, to confuse the issue and change the rules of engagement, especially after the US announced a new strategy in Syria which requires regime change, reining in Iran, and curbing Russia’s strategic influence.
A few days before the Israeli jet was shot down, the Syrian opposition shot down a Russian jet. The armed opposition does not possess anti-aircraft weapons, which means it must have acquired them from a powerful country, namely the US.
Turkey has convinced Russia it had no hand in the incident and has taken steps to show its good faith by handing over the body of the dead pilot and allowing a Russian investigation team under Turkish auspices to inspect the wreckage and the missile that shot it down.
The Russian-Iranian axis also targeted a facility belonging to the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria, to which Washington quickly responded by bombing some 100 members of Iranian-backed militias.
This triggered a Russian-Iranian response in southern Syria. If this analysis is correct, then the doors have been flung open for a fierce and extensive war between the US and Russia, in which Syria is the battleground and the Syrian people will suffer most.
“It is likely that Russia had nothing to do with the bombing of a facility belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces or the shooting down of the Israeli plane,” said Eyad Barakat, an officer in the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) in southern Syria.
“It is purely an Iranian matter. Russia cannot rein in Iran on the ground, and it is angered by its provocations of the US in eastern Syria and Israel in southern Syria. Tehran is sending a simultaneous message to the US and Russia that it will not leave Syria if it does not get what it wants, namely connecting southern Syria with southern Lebanon so Hizbullah, Iran’s military arm, can control this sensitive region.”
“It is ready to go to war and do direct battle if the US and Russia decide to restrain Hizbullah in the region,” Barakat said.
On 29 January, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, something which has become routine since Russia’s direct military intervention in Syria in late 2015.
Netanyahu discussed Tel Aviv’s concerns, including the existence of four Iranian plants in Syria and Lebanon, the deployment of Hizbullah and Iranian militias near the line of disengagement in the Golan, and the non-implementation of the US-Russia-Jordan de-escalation agreement.
The two men arranged for their respective national security councils to meet in Tel Aviv on 30 January to address military and security concerns and coordinate together so that Israel can continue bombing Iranian targets without Russian objections.
Israel does not want to transform the Syrian crisis from a proxy war to a direct war with other countries involved in Syria. The clashes will remain controlled unless Iran insists on escalating its attacks against Israel and US influence is undermined. The Syrian crisis will thus remain hostage to Iran, despite Tehran’s diminished power in the face of Russia and US.
It is likely that current international conditions will not allow for military escalation between the US and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other, but the possibility of war will remain as long as Iran continues to intervene in Syria.
This is a strategic threat, not only for the Middle East, but also for the world as a whole.
* This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly