ON SATURDAY February 8, Israel and Iran clashed over Syrian skies in an incident that was the closest the two countries have ever come to a direct military confrontation. Iran launched a drone from eastern Syria that penetrated Israeli airspace. An Israeli Apache helicopter downed the drone. In retaliation, the Israel Air Force attacked and destroyed the Iranian command and control center that operated the drone. Subsequently, clashes between the IAF and Syrian air defense system erupted.
But the military punches between Israel, Syria and Iran also contained a few more “firsts.” It was the first time that an Iranian unmanned drone penetrated Israeli space. In the past, Iranian-made drones which infiltrated Israel were operated by Hezbollah. This time, it was an all-Iranian operation led by the al-Quds Force under the command of General Qasem Soleimani – the decision, the launching, as well as the operational control and guidance.
It was also the first time that an Israeli warplane was downed by an enemy (Syrian) missile since the First Lebanon War in 1982. And it was the largest Israeli attack against Syrian anti-aircraft batteries since the same year during that war. Actually, Israel smashed half of the Syrian ground-to-air batteries, manufactured and supplied over the years by Russia.
Both sides boasted about their achievements. Israeli generals praised their capabilities, which helped the IAF to identify, follow and eventually shoot down an advanced Iranian drone. An IAF senior officer indicated that it was a stealth drone modeled on a US unmanned vehicle.
On December 4, 2011, an American Lockheed Martin RQ-170 drone was captured by Iranian forces in northeastern Iran. The Iranian government announced that the drone was brought down by its cyber warfare unit, which commandeered the aircraft and safely landed it.
Nevertheless, it seems that despite the enormous Iranian scientific and technological efforts, its reverse engineering wasn’t that successful and they failed to copycat the American materials, which should have made it completely undetected.
YET, IT didn’t stop the Iran-Hezbollah-Syria axis from celebrating the blow inflicted on the proud IAF. On the other hand, Israeli generals and cabinet ministers are proud of their achievements to obtain such precise intelligence that helped to destroy the Syrian air defense batteries. They also point out their operational capabilities which led to the interception and shooting down of the drone and to destroying its command center.
However, the basic reality and the conflicting interests of the involved parties have not changed. Israel remains the strongest military force in the region, and its air and intelligence supremacy are evident almost daily.
All in all, the incident indicates that the tension between Israel and Iran over its involvement in Syria and Lebanon is growing and not going away. Both sides are determined to keep pursuing their strategies.
Iran already succeeded in achieving one important goal, which has historic roots and dimensions. It has created a land corridor that in the opposing Arab-Sunni world is termed as the “Shi’ite Crescent.” The phrase was coined already in 2004 by King Abdullah of Jordan. It refers to the influence and control, which Iran has over a vast stretch of land extending from its Iranian base over Iraq, with its large Shi’ite population, to Syria, and from there to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the 7th century, when the Shi’ites sought to be the dominant force in Islam, they never managed to get close to the Euphrates River. And now the Iranian Shi’ites are on the riverbanks in both Iraq and Syria.
Yet Iran is not fully satisfied with the situation. It continues to pursue its interests to deepen its involvement in Syria
and benefit from the economic dividends once the war is over and wide stability is restored, enabling the Syrian regime led by President Bashar Assad to increase its control over the country.
At the same time, Tehran seeks to use Syria as a future launching pad against Israel. For this purpose, it plans to build intelligence posts near the Syrian-Israeli border and build production facilities for long-range and precise missiles, mainly to supply them to its Hezbollah ally. Iran also plans to construct similar production sites in Lebanon itself.
Israel, on the other hand, aims to preserve its freedom of action in Syria and Lebanon to prevent the deployment of Iran’s troops or Iranian proxies (the Shi’ite international brigade mainly comprises Afghani, Iraqi and Pakistani mercenaries and Hezbollah) near its border, to stop weapons supplies to Hezbollah and to prevent the construction of missile factories. For that purpose, Israel employs both diplomacy and military strength. It uses Russia as an intermediary to convey its messages to the Syrian-Iranian- Hezbollah axis. And if they don’t get these messages, Israel uses its air force, which since the beginning of the civil war has attacked Syrian and Iranian targets at least 100 times. In most cases, Israel didn’t claim responsibility and left its operations opaque.
But Israel also doesn’t want to find itself in a direct military confrontation with the tripartite axis. It’s clear to Israeli military commanders and the cabinet that if a new war breaks out, it will be conducted on two fronts: Syria and Lebanon, with their huge arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets and missiles. Israel’s civilian population would suffer heavily. This Israeli perception was clearly demonstrated in the decision-making process to down the Iranian drone. Israel followed the drone from its first stage and decided to shoot it down not over Syrian or Jordanian airspace but to take action only after it entered Israeli airspace. Why? In order not to provoke Iran and give it a pretext for retaliation.
It seems that Iran doesn’t want to escalate the situation either. We can learn this from its response. Iran didn’t launch missiles against the Israeli planes, and the only ones to do so were the Syrians. First Iran denied that Israel shot down one of its aerial vehicles and then argued that the Israeli version was a lie and that it was downed over Syrian territory. All this is evidence that Tehran restrained itself to prevent an undesired escalation.
INDEED, BOTH sides are continuing their efforts to pursue their strategies and interests without being dragged into a war. The name of the game they play is containment. They try to push the envelope to test the reaction and limits of the other side, and if they realize that they are going too far, they stop. The Russian game
is even more complex. The Kremlin’s ultimate interest is to stabilize the Syrian regime and eventually to reap economic dividends. But Russia is playing a double game. Moscow still needs Iran and its proxies as boots on the ground to finish off the remaining pockets of resistance to Assad’s regime. Yet they also allow the Israel Air Force with whom they have established official channels of communication to operate freely against its two allies.
As for Assad, he knows very well that Israel is the major force that possesses the power to prevent him from achieving his goal to reinstate his full authority over all of Syria. Yet it has to be remembered that in the Middle East, players are sometimes unpredictable. The region’s past history shows that wars can break out due to miscalculations about the intentions of one or more sides.