Israeli strikes in Syria last week could signal the beginning of a series of wars on Syrian territory that will overshadow the struggle for the removal of Bashar al Assad.
There was a serious escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria last week. This has been a long-time coming, an inevitable part of the contest for regional order that was obscured, and fuelled, by the narrow focus on the Islamic State (Daesh) and the war against its “caliphate”, particularly over the last year.
Overnight Friday to Saturday, Iran sent a drone, based on technology stolen from an American drone that Tehran captured in 2011, toward Israel’s border. Israel shot the drone down and then dispatched at least eight fighter jets into Syria to attack the T4 base from which it was launched, deep in the deserts of eastern Syria, near the ancient city of Palmyra.
As Israel’s warplanes were returning home, the air defence systems of the regime of Bashar al Assad unleashed significant fire; whether there was a direct hit or not is unclear, one Israeli F-16 was downed and one of the two pilots who ejected was seriously injured. This is the first time an Israeli jet has been brought down in combat since 1982, the same year Israel got into a famous “dogfight” over Lebanon with Syrian aircraft and air defences, destroying both without losing a single plane. The event had geopolitical significance beyond itself since it demonstrated the superiority of Western equipment as to that manufactured by the Soviet Union.
In response, Israel launched a second wave of airstrikes into Syria against the pro-Assad coalition, including positions occupied by the Fourth Armoured Division, one of the elite killing units of Assad’s regime that used to be run by his brother.
This is the largest exchange of fire between Israel and Iran over Syria, and the trendlines that led to it indicate that it is more of a harbinger than an exception.
One of the under-emphasised implications from this incident is that it goes a long way to demonstrating that plans for Syria based on Russian mediation with, or leverage over, the Assad/Iran system, are doomed to failure. It is conceivable that Israel itself still operates with some version of this hope in mind. There are Russian forces at the T4 base Israel struck, for example, suggesting that the message was aimed at Moscow, too. Israel has repeatedly tried to work through the Russians to get Iranian forces away from its northern frontier, and Moscow has proven unable or unwilling every time.
The fragility of Moscow’s grip can be seen at the other end of Syria, too, where Russia seemed ascendant, militarily and politically, as recently as three months ago. Then cracks began appearing at the end of last year and in the new year Turkey rolled into Afrin to combat the PKK, an operation Russia formally supported after becoming aware it was unable to stop it. In Idlib, the “de-escalation zone”, an idea entirely formulated by the Russians, has led to clashes after Russia brokered an agreement that Iranian-led pro-Assad forces then tried to violate.
The broader context of this latest collision is Iran trying to normalise its presence in Syria, to entrench its vast security architecture overseen by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards and consisting of legions of foreign Shia militia, and to probe for weaknesses in its adversaries, Israel and America above all (hence the near-simultaneous attack on American-allied forces in eastern Syria by the pro-Assad coalition). As Chagai Tzuriel, the director-general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry put it, the drone “was not an attack, but a test of the limits and rules.” Tzuriel added: “For the Iranians, there is nothing better than to test the limits and get away with it, and that’s why we should not let them.”
Last September, an Iranian drone was shot down as it headed into Israel, and that was the extent of the engagement. This time Israel chose to go further. As Tzuriel describes, Israel’s operation over the weekend is clearly intended to establish new red lines that constrain Iran’s room to move and demonstrate the penalties that will be incurred for violations of these terms.
When the American-led campaign against Daesh began in 2014, it deliberately spared the pro-Assad forces. The attempt by the previous US administration was to reengineer the region to make it self-policing, allowing America to draw down, and axiomatically giving Iran a larger role. Part of the way this proceeded tactically was by a (publicly) unspoken alliance between the US and Iran against Daesh. The justification was that Daesh was so grave a threat it had to be tackled with whatever instruments were at hand.
The result of the West’s policy was the displacement of Daesh with Iranian proxies in vast areas of Iraq and Syria, and the displacement of Daesh by the PKK in other areas of Syria. For Syria’s neighbours, this situation is intolerable and, with Turkey in the north and Israel in the south, they are taking matters into their own hands. Daesh was always going to be defeated; it was too much of a threat to too many actors. The important question was how, but the West focused on when, and the harvest of this short-termism is now before us, a series of wars on Syrian territory that could spiral into something worse than has been seen in the last seven years.
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