Israeli raids in Syria escalate the conflict with Iran, ripple effects likely in Lebanon
TUNIS - Massive Israeli air strikes battered Syrian and Iranian positions in Syria after an unmanned Iranian aircraft was intercepted by Israel over its territory and an Israeli fighter jet was shot down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
This first direct confrontation between Iran and Israel since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011 threatened to carry serious consequences in Syria and across the region, especially for Lebanon, where the pro-Iran Hezbollah could consider moves that would ratchet up already-high tensions with Israel.
The Israeli F-16 jet was downed early February 10, Israeli officials said. Both pilots escaped but one was said to be badly wounded.
An Israeli military statement said an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launched from within Syria was intercepted in Israeli airspace by a combat helicopter. The Israeli Air Force then “targeted the Iranian control systems in Syria that sent the UAV into Israeli airspace,” a tweet from military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus stated. Israeli aircraft came under “massive” anti-aircraft fire from Syrian positions, which resulted in the downing of the jet.
Israel confirmed that it had attacked 12 other targets in Syria in response, including three air defence batteries and four installations “that are part of Iran’s military establishment in Syria.”
In an apparent recognition of the heightened risks of any escalation, Israel’s military spokesmen said that, though Syria and Iran were “playing with fire,” Israel was “not looking to escalate the situation.”
“This is the most blatant and severe Iranian violation of Israeli sovereignty in the last years,” Conricus said, referring to the reported UAV incursion into Israeli airspace. “That’s why our response is as severe as it is.”
With the battlefield defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), Syria has become the theatre for a deadly escalation of rivalries between regional and world powers, with Israel joining the United States, Russia, Turkey, the Syrian regime, plus Iran and its principal Lebanese ally Hezbollah, in competing for prominence on an increasingly crowded stage.
Though this is the first direct confrontation between Israel and Iran, Israeli air strikes on positions in Syria have been a regular feature of the war. Israeli action had been restricted to what it claimed were advanced weapons stores or convoys taking materiel to Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon. However, it also sporadically struck at Syrian government facilities suspected of developing weapons that could be used against the Jewish state.
Iran has yet to respond to the Israeli strikes but tensions between Tel Aviv and Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, have been escalating. Israeli accusations of Iran-sponsored and Hezbollah-operated weapons plants in Lebanon have been growing. Israeli military spokesman Brigadier-General Ronen Manelis in January accused Iran of turning Lebanon into “one big missile factory.”
Further fuelling tensions between the two countries have been Israeli plans to construct a border wall on territory Beirut claims as its own and the public dispute over a gas field straddling the countries’ maritime frontiers.
Israel and Hezbollah have yet to directly engage since the ambiguous conclusion of their month-long confrontation in 2006. At that time, despite incurring heavy casualties, Hezbollah pushed Israeli forces back across the frontier.
However, since its involvement in the Syrian conflict, Hezbollah is regarded as having significantly improved its military capacity and battlefield experience, increasing the risks of a clash with Israel.
An escalation of violence in Syria would mark a serious setback for Russian plans to impose some form of peace settlement on the war-ravaged country before its March 18 elections.
Turkish forces are engaged against Syria’s Kurds in northern Syria and the United States carried out massive air strikes against Syrian forces, said to include Russian “contractors,” in oil-rich Deir ez-Zor on February 7. Elsewhere, both Russian and Syrian jets were said to be waging a war of attrition across the north-western province of Idlib and the Assad regime was pounding the Damascus suburb of east Ghouta.
How Israel’s entry into the fray may shape circumstances remains to be seen.