JERUSALEM: A confrontation at the weekend in Syria has turned up the heat between arch-foes Israel and Iran, but neither side seems to want a war for now, analysts said.
Israel carried out major air raids in neighbouring Syria on Saturday, including against what it described as Iranian targets in the country.
It was the first time Israel publicly acknowledged hitting Iranian targets in Syria since the 2011 start of the civil war there.
The strikes came after what Israel said was an incursion by an Iranian drone into its airspace and the shooting down of one of its F16s — believed to be the first loss of an Israeli jet in combat since 1982.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Sunday of having inflicted a “heavy blow” to Iranian and Syrian forces, and Israel’s military says a preliminary assessment shows around half of Syria’s air defences were taken out.
Iranian media close to the leadership in Tehran has focused on the shooting down of the Israeli warplane by Syrian air defences, with one paper declaring it “the end of secure skies for the Zionist regime in Syria”.
Tensions between the two enemies over Syria had been building for some time, with at least three separate interests at work, several analysts say.
Israel does not want Iran, which is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, to entrench itself militarily next door. Iran seems determined to remain there.
Syria, meanwhile, feels it now has the upper hand in the civil war and is more emboldened to stop Israeli air raids inside the country, analysts say.
Assad is also supported by Russia and Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah.
Israel acknowledges carrying out dozens of air strikes inside Syria to stop what it says are advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah, with whom it fought a 2006 war.
‘One miscalculation away’
Even before the weekend strikes, the International Crisis Group warned Iran’s activities in Syria were fuelling Israeli fears of Iranian bases on its borders.
“A broader war could be one miscalculation away,” it wrote in a report released on Thursday.
ICG senior analyst Ofer Zalzberg told AFP following the latest confrontation that it increased the chances of war over the longer term.
“We’ve moved a step closer,” he said. “Not because of the incident itself necessarily but because we are seeing that the parties are now taking more assertive stances.”
Mujtaba Mousavi, a political analyst in Tehran, said Syria’s heavy anti-aircraft fire that brought down the Israeli plane signalled a “shift in the strategy of Syria and its allies”.
“Iran will not step back and will not leave Syria as it is an important geostrategic ally after years of fighting and paying the price for saving it,” he said. “Israel and the United States are trying to prevent or limit Iran’s presence in post-war Syria.”
Israel says Saturday’s incident began when an Iranian drone entered its airspace. Iran denies the Israeli version.
According to the Jewish state, an Israeli helicopter shot down the drone inside Israel, north of the city of Beit Shean.
Eight Israeli warplanes then carried out a retaliatory raid on “Iranian control systems in Syria” which had been flying the pilotless aircraft, the Israeli army said.
It said those aircraft came under heavy Syrian anti-aircraft fire and the F16 was hit, crashing in northern Israel’s Jezreel valley. Both pilots survived, though one was seriously wounded.
The air force then launched a second wave of “large-scale” strikes, including against “four Iranian targets that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria”, an Israeli military statement said.
Six people were killed in the strikes, including four non-Syrians fighting with the regime and two Syrian soldiers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor.
‘The worst timing’
Sima Shine, formerly deputy director general for Iran at the Israeli ministry of strategic affairs, said the chain of events suggested Iranian military personnel in Syria may not have coordinated the drone operation with the political leadership in Tehran.
“From the political point of view of Iran, I think it was the worst timing,” she said, citing domestic economic and social protests, as well as Tehran’s diplomatic efforts to preserve a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
She said she believed it likely the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had decided, either in its Tehran headquarters or at its mission in Syria, “that this was the operational best time for them”.
She said further such incidents were likely, but not full-out conflict.
“For the time being both sides will restrain their responses and there will not be an escalation in the very near future,” she added.
The ICG’s Zalzberg agreed there was little taste for war.
“I think that this incident is likely to be contained,” he said. “In general the parties are not looking for a war.”
But other commentators noted that when heavily armed neighbours engage in brinksmanship, it’s easy to step over the brink.
“Most of the wars in the Middle East have been the result of unintended developments,” columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in Israeli paper Yediot Aharanot. “A game of chicken gone wrong, a terror attack that was too successful, the pressure of public opinion.”
Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2018